Auto giant General Motors (GM) has struck a deal with labor at its German subsidiary Opel, keeping its Bochum plant open until 2016. Although this prevented a premature closure in 2013, it is a cold comfort to workers.
Bochumis Opel and Opel is Bochum, people living in this industrial town in the western German Ruhr Valley use to saying. In past centuries, it was here - amid the smokestacks of steel mills and grimy coal mine elevators - where the heart of German industry used to beat. Opel has been an essential part of it since the German carmaker opened its plant in Bochum in 1962.
"Opel is a brand that belongs to us, Bochum people say," noted Bernd Wolham. The red-brick Protestant church building where he is pastor is situated just a few kilometers away from the sprawling car plant. Most of the people in his community work at Opel. He said it had become his fate to guide them through many years of crisis.
During the plant's heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, more than 20,000 workers used to be employed at Opel in Bochum. But the carmaker slipped into crisis after the turn of the millennium, running up losses and cutting down on staff. A first wave of layoffs in 2004 made 11,000 workers redundant. From the 9,000 who were able to hold onto their jobs at the time, just about 3,200 have remained to this day.
Workers get grace period
But recently, a major restructuring plan by United States-based GM - Opel's parent company - led to a decision to close the Bochum plant altogether. By 2016, carmaking at the factory would cease, GM announced at the end of last year. Earlier this year, the US auto giant even set an ultimatum that by Thursday (28.02.2013), Opel's works council would have to make concessions or else face an even earlier closure of the plant: the end of 2013.
After months of negotiations, labor and management agreed Thursday to keep the plant open until 2016, granting job guarantees to the remaining 3,200 staff at Bochum.
Wolham said he was angry about the pressure management exerted on Opel workers during the negotiations. Meanwhile, workers' frustration had given way to resignation, he said, adding that most of them have become tired of fighting for their jobs.
At the huge main gate to the Bochum plant on Thursday, this exhaustion could be seen in the faces of Opel workers. Most of them refused to speak with DW after their shifts were over. They looked forlorn as they walked across the huge parking lot, which had seen better days when it held almost 10 times as many cars.
Nothing to add
Asked about the current situation, Opel workers just shrugged, with answers ranging from "there's nothing to say anymore," to "sorry, I don't feel like saying anything."
"Our fate has been hanging in balance for years," said Peter Weber, among the few Opel workers inclined to speak. "We were always hoping for the better because they used to tell us that we just had to give something up to make our jobs secure. But they didn't hold to that."
Thomas Koller, a 57-year-old worker who told DW he hoped to qualify for early retirement, was a bit more upbeat. "Things could turn out fine for me," Koller said. His younger colleagues are much worse off, he added, because it would be extremely difficult to find a similarly well-paying job in the region.
Ever since the plant in Bochum opened in 1962, Opel has been known for paying good wages. Jürgen Scherphausen, a former miner, was among the first generation of auto workers at the plant.
"I felt like a king after receiving my first wage. At the time, 400 deutschmarks was twice as much as what I'd earned before," he told DW. He met his wife Grete at the plant, and both of them were proud members of the Opel family until they retired.
To this day, Opel continues to be an important topic for them because their son works at the Bochum plant as a varnisher, and their two grandchildren underwent vocational training there.
"When the two started out, it was assumed they would do their apprenticeships and then get jobs there. Things were moving in this direction, but then a few years later, everything just fell apart," Scherphausen said. His one grandson ended up becoming a firefighter, while the other one is still with Opel but looking for other work.
Although Scherphausen said he was angry at Opel managers for trying to force workers "onto their knees," he added that he wanted to remain loyal to the carmaker, pledging to soon trade in his 12-year-old Mercedes for an Opel.