Page last updated at 09:28 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 10:28 UK

German Opel workers fear Fiat future

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News, Kaiserslautern, Germany

The Opel factory in Kaiserslautern
The 3,400 people working at the Opel factory in Kaiserslautern fear it will close.

Amid the whirring of drills and the grinding of metal, Markus Giesler says he feels at home in the training workshop.

Sarah Hollinger
It doesn't look like Fiat have got the best plans for us so everybody here has the same anxieties
Opel apprentice Sarah Hollinger

"But I'm a little bit scared about the situation now," the 18-year-old admits.

"I had always thought I would finish my apprenticeship here and then work for Opel and that would be my career.

"But now it seems uncertain."

Mr Giesler moved away from his family to train to be an electrician at the Opel factory in Kaiserslautern, western Germany.

Employing about 3,400 people, the plant on the outskirts of town manufactures components for cars such as the Astra and the Saturn, as well as two types of engine.

But this week, the chief executive of Fiat told the German government that if - as many expect - the Italian carmaker buys Opel in a takeover of General Motor's European division, then the Kaiserslautern factory would almost certainly close.

Shared anxieties

Marvin Elbeck
I've three daughters still in school and a house to pay for, and I'm one of more than 3,000 workers in the same position
Opel factory worker Marvin Elbeck

With Opel as the largest employer in the Rhineland-Palatinate region, there is no escaping the news says, Sarah Hollinger, also 18, and whose father has worked at the factory for 25 years.

"It is in the papers and on the radio all the time, and when I drive to work with my dad, we hear about it and of course we talk about it," she says.

Like Mr Giesler, Ms Hollinger is halfway through her apprenticeship.

"You just have to get on with things, but it doesn't look like Fiat have got the best plans for us so everybody here has the same anxieties."

Harsh realities

As a siren sounds at 2pm to mark a shift change, workers amble out of the factory gates. Heading towards the staff car park, they leave behind the yellow and grey building.

Clemens Czindsolors
Everyone knows someone who works at Opel so it's is a massive concern here
Toy shop owner Clemens Czindsolors

Marvin Elbeck, a supplier quality controller, has seen the factory threatened before during his 11 years at Opel, but this time says he is "fearful".

And aged 52, he is, he adds, with a healthy slab of irony, "the perfect age to be looking for a new job".

"I've three daughters still in school and a house to pay for, and I'm one of more than 3,000 workers in the same position," Mr Elbeck says.

Anger and shock

In one of the three staff canteens on site, the mood feels serious.

Wirsindopel
We are prepared to take some of the hurt, but it would be a catastrophe for the factory to close
Lothar Sorger, deputy chairman of the Opel works council

Though while Fiat are not being talked about in warm tones, Lothar Sorger can see the funny side, of the Meal of the Day being pizza - served from a stall bedecked in the Italian tricolour.

As deputy chairman of the works council at the factory, Mr Sorger is employed by Opel to represent employees, 94% of whom are members of unions. He says the mood among many is anger and shock.

"People just can't understand how Sergio Marchionne (Fiat's chief executive) can come out in the first round to speak out with such a message about closure," he says.

GM Europe's position is clear - that no deal is on the table and that it is talking to a number of potential investors - who are also thought to include the Canadian car parts maker, Magna International.

But while it is far from a done deal, Tim Urqhart of IHS Global Insight says that the closure of Kaiserslautern would be a "logical rationalisation" and one of the few "strategic cost savings" that could actually be achieved by Fiat buying GM Europe.

Components could be made elsewhere or bought from suppliers, he says, while the engines it makes - especially the 1.9 litre diesel used in the Astra and Insignia models - are also made by Fiat at its engine plant in Pratola Serra.

Mr Sorger accepts that the industry needs "corrections" in the business, but insists that simply looking to cut jobs to save money is too simplistic and that there is room for improvement in increasing sales.

And he sees similarities with "comrades" at Vauxhall factories in Ellesmere Port and Luton, whose own futures may be vulnerable under a new owner.

"We are prepared to take some of the hurt, but it would be a catastrophe for the factory to close," Mr Sorger says.

"Because we are not a very rich region, in terms of work opportunities, if Opel went down the whole region would go down."

Mercedes mayor

Kaiserslautern is known locally to some as K-Town - a name given affectionately by Americans, tens of thousands of whom worked on and around Ramstein the US Air Base, which is still the largest such facility outside of the US.

Klaus Weichal
For blue-collar workers, it is nearly impossible to find jobs near their homes that would really compensate for lost jobs, and this is even more hopeless if hundreds or thousands lose their jobs at the same time
Klaus Weichal, Lord Mayor, Kaiserslautern

This alone was enough to warrant an invite to Barack Obama's inauguration being sent to Klaus Weichal, the town's Oberbürgermeister - or Lord Mayor.

And while Dr Weichal could not make it to Washington, the invitation has been framed, ready for the wall of his office on the twelfth floor of Kaiserslautern's town hall.

He admits he does not drive a car from the Opel plant he can see through the windows to the west. ("A Mercedes Benz cabriolet, actually," he says when prompted.)

But the Lord Mayor seems passionate about the firm - understandably when it is thought to be directly relied upon for income by 12,000 people, with tens of thousands more economically dependent as suppliers or running services and other businesses.

Quite apart from the taxes the carmaker pays and the sponsorship of local sport and culture, its closure would be "a catastrophe for the employers, their families and the whole region", he adds.

As its military role fades, the town has been creating jobs through a push towards hi-tech industries, but Dr Weichal says these are "no good" for the vast majority of those employed by Opel.

"For blue-collar workers, it is nearly impossible to find jobs near their homes that would really compensate for lost jobs, and this is even more hopeless if hundreds or thousands lose their jobs at the same time."

Local impact

Back down at street level, the proliferation of discount shops, and chain stores offering hefty discounts suggests that Kaiserslautern is feeling the impact of the economic downturn as much as anywhere else in Germany - where the European Commission's spring forecast predicts economic output will fall by 5.5% this year.

GM EUROPE
Flags
Sales of $34.4bn in 2008 (£23bn; 25.9bn euros)
Operates 10 plants in seven countries
Employs about 54,500 people
Brands include Vauxhall, Opel and Saab

From his offices, diagonally opposite a sex shop, Michael Detjen, regional organiser of the umbrella union group Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, says a Fiat takeover of Opel would be a "worst case" scenario on top of the current downturn.

"These are workers who put their money back into local economy, through the bakers, the pharmacies, the butchers shops," he points out.

Mr Detjen did not mention toy stores, but standing by the Steiff bears and Lego sets, Clemens Czindsolors is as worried as most local business people.

He is already seeing the toughest trading conditions he can recall at his Carl Gotthald shop. "Worse even than when Toys'R'Us opened in town," he says.

"Everyone knows someone who works at Opel so it's is a massive concern here," he continues. "And if it goes, there is nothing to fill the holes."

However there are plenty still clinging to the idea that the closure remains a big if. Indeed, given the high level of union membership at the factory, if it went ahead it would inevitably be a protracted move.

Back outside the factory gates, in a bright yellow 'Wir Sind Opel' (We are Opel) t-shirt, factory line worker Gerd Sutter, 45, remains upbeat.

"Okay, the situation looks bad, but I've been here 15 years, and I'm sure we'll continue to have work here in Kaiserslautern," he says defiantly.

"We'll fight and we'll be strong."

Map of GM Europe's key operations



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