A touch of class struggle in Germany’s car industry

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Source: Progressive International
Multinational corporations in the automotive industry like Bosch say they need to lay off workers in the transition to less-labour intensive e-mobility. In reality, they want to relocate production to low-wage countries to safeguard profits.

This is a catastrophe,” says Giuseppe Ciccone standing in front of “his” Munich plant during the German trade union IG Metall’s action day on Bosch. Shortly before, he had given a combative speech to about 600 workers. Since then, most of them have gone back to the plant or left. The chairman of the Bosch works council in Munich has been working at the local Bosch plant for almost forty years. He started at the age of 18 and is still there today. The plant and its employees are a central part of his life, “Like a family,” he says. But, as of late, a sense of crisis is prevalent in the family because the future of the plant is at stake.

Last year, Bosch announced plans to close its Munich plant which, until now, has been a production site for combustion engines, manufacturing fuel pumps and valves for diesel and petrol engines that will no longer be used in electric cars. Twenty years ago, about 1,600 people worked there but now there are only about 260 left. Even though it’s actually a rather small site, the struggle of the 260 against the planned closure has come to exemplify the conflict over the car industry and its workers’ future.

Transformation from above

Bosch is currently the world’s largest supplier for the automotive industry with most of its turnover coming from combustion engine technology until now. If it is to maintain its powerful position in the industry, the company will have to transform. In order to do so, among other things, it plans to relocate the production previously located in Munich. A small part would be going to Nuremberg and the bulk of it to Czechia or Brazil, even though current employees paid €40 million between 2005 and 2017 as part of an employment protection agreement to secure their jobs. For a company that boasts how “At the Munich plant, we stand for a family-like togetherness” on its homepage, that’s quite an astonishing approach.

Similar plans to cut jobs exist for the plants in Arnstadt in Thuringia and Bühl in Baden. Bosch wants to stop production entirely in Arnstadt and in Bühl 1,000 of the current 3,700 jobs stand to be slashed.

The company is using the transition to e-mobility and the accompanying adjustment of the company structure to justify its plans. It announced its intention to make electric mobility its core business and to turn “CO2-free” mobility into an opportunity for growth. To this end, the company wants to close various production sites and use restructuring to save money and cut jobs as the production of electric cars requires significantly fewer workers than those with combustion engines.

For Miyase Erdogan, who has also worked at the Munich plant for decades, it is clear that “this has nothing to do with electric cars.” Bosch has long wanted to relocate production to so-called low-wage countries. IG-Metall also thinks that Bosch is misusing the reference to e-mobility transition as a pretext for its plans to close plants. The relocations and job cuts are primarily about generating higher profits. In fact, Bosch does not even want to stop making money off combustion engines, it just wants to make them cheaper.

Resistance to the closure

The workers at the Munich plant refuse to accept this and are demanding their jobs be saved. Among other things, they have developed an alternative proposal to secure both the site and jobs in Munich. To them it’s clear that sites producing combustion engines can be used to produce other, environmentally friendly products in the future. “If one wanted to, we could all make it work,” says Ciccone emphatically.

IG Metall initiated the next phase of the conflict on 26 November 2021 with a solidarity action day around Bosch. In Munich, Arnstadt and Bühl a total of almost 2,500 workers protested for their future. Music echoed through the quiet residential area in the east of Munich where the Bosch plant is located. Red flags were everywhere and combative speeches flowed from a loudspeaker system. Almost the entire Munich workforce united for the rally in front of their plant. Workers from Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Bamberg and Blaibach also came to support their colleagues from Munich. All those who were on the streets in Munich that morning knew: This is about all of them.

The Bosch Group’s actions reflect the wider restructuring of the car industry in Germany, which has been ongoing for quite some time and, so far, it has come at the expense of the employees. Tens of thousands have already been laid off, Daimler plans to fire up to 20,000 workers and the supplier Continental is also closing numerous plants and plans to sack up to 13,000 employees. The rest are forced to compete for the few remaining jobs in e-mobility. “The transformation is ongoing,” says Ciccone. “And it’s only a matter of time before it’s other plants’ turn.”

Nevertheless, the broad response to the day of action also gives him hope: “Today we saw many Bosch plants and IG Metall workers showing solidarity with us. And I believe this solidarity will grow. We need to strengthen solidarity once again. Only then will we be able to tell the employers they can’t do this to us. If there had only been 250 people here, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. But, through the solidarity with Bosch plants, IGM workers, environmental activists and all the others who are joining us at the moment, Bosch will find us a hard nut to crack. It’s not just about 250 people. If you mess with 250, you mess with everyone.”

Alliance with the climate movement

The reference to the solidarity of environmental activists may seem surprising at first. But a group of climate activists are in fact also campaigning against the closure of the plant and were present at the day of action.

After reading about the planned plant closure in the newspaper, they started going to the factory gate to talk to workers. After a few weeks of talks, the workers’ initial skepticism dissipated. This rare but urgent alliance of climate activism and car industry workers led to the formation of a group called “Climate Protection and Class Struggle”. Their argument is that “the call for redundancies for climate protection is driving a rift between the climate movement and the more than 800,000 people who are directly employed in the car industry in Germany, and is thereby hindering the common fight against the climate catastrophe. We cannot accept this.”

The personal conversations outside the factory gate led to a joint petition by the climate groups and workers. Their common goals are: No layoffs for climate protection – and transitioning to ecological production. A large majority of the workers signed the petition because a comprehensive transformation of the supplier and car industry could in fact not only compensate for job losses, but even create hundreds of thousands of new jobs to support mobility transition. However, the transformation of the car industry should not be limited to the production of electric cars.

For this to succeed, we need stronger alliances between climate and labour struggles, this is a fact that unions, workers and climate activists agree on.

The transformation of the car industry will continue, that much is certain. It is about safe and good jobs for workers in an industry struggling for its future. It is about fighting the climate catastrophe that so urgently requires the transformation of the industry. Finally, it is also about opposing a transformation benefiting corporations at the expense of the environment and workers. If the climate question is taken seriously as a class question, we need more of these alliances. The example given by the alliance of the climate movement and workers in Munich provides an overdue answer to the question of how the struggles in the automotive industry can be led by standing shoulder to shoulder and, importantly, it shows how joint organising can succeed.

Giuseppe Ciccone and all those who turned up that day have not yet given up hope for the future of the Munich plant. In his speech, he promised that he and his fellow fighters will chain themselves to the machines if need be. For him, for the affected workers at the Bosch sites and for many workers along the production and supply chains of the car industry, the struggle continues and that’s equally true for the climate movement. And so, naming their group “Climate Protection and Class Struggle” certainly did not overpromise.

Franziska Heinisch is an activist and author. In autumn 2020, she founded the organisation Justice is Global Europe with other activists. In May 2021, she published the book “Wir haben keine Wahl. Ein Manifest gegen das Aufgeben” (We have no choice. A manifesto against giving up).

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