Workers occupy auto parts plant in northern Germany
By Lucas Adler ,12 December 2008
On December 5, about 100 employees of the bankrupt auto parts supplier HWU occupied their factory in the small town of Hohenlockstedt, north of Hamburg. The workers are determined to defend their jobs and prevent the planned closure of the plant at the end of the year.
The workers’ union, IG Metall, is attempting to end the factory occupation following complaints from union bureaucrats at a major auto manufacturer that the action was threatening to disrupt production at that other firm.
HWU produces parts for catalytic converters, steering wheels and door locks. In June 2008, HWU was sold by its parent company, the Vollmann Group, to Horst Strodtkötter, a former employee at the factory. The workforce only learned of their new owner June 30, at a factory meeting that the new managing director did not attend.
Then six weeks ago, on October 29, Strodtkötter informed the workforce that HWU was bankrupt and unable to pay their wages in October. Strodtkötter declared that a 30 percent drop in orders resulting from the current crisis in the automotive industry had driven the company into bankruptcy.
The workers reacted at that time with a spontaneous 24-hour occupation of the premises. Their main concern was to prevent the removal of any parts or machinery that would make further production at the factory impossible. Following the declaration of a bankruptcy administrator that the company had sufficient orders, and that the outstanding wages could be paid out of insolvency funds (Insolvenzgeld--money paid by the government to workers at bankrupt firms, out of a levy on the owners), the employees returned to work.
Since then the workforce has been kept completely in the dark about any further developments. There was no further information on the future of the factory from either the managing director or the bankruptcy trustee. When it was announced last week that at the end of the year the insolvency funds would be exhausted, workers reoccupied the plant on Friday.
On Tuesday morning the factory council finally informed the workforce about the plan to close the plant. The majority of workers are to be made redundant by December 31. A skeleton staff of between 25 to 30 workers will be retained until the end of March to wind down the factory. The only hope for any retention of jobs, according to IG Metall, was via the creation of some sort of transfer company (a firm specializing in matching laid-off workers with new jobs).
The workers at the factory, however, place absolutely no confidence in such a transfer company. They are all convinced that the chances of finding alternative work in the present economic climate are almost zero. Many workers have been employed at the factory for over two decades and are ill-equipped to find new jobs at this stage of their lives and careers.
Hohenlockstedt is a small town of approximately 6,200 inhabitants in rural Schleswig-Holstein. At its peak, the factory was a thriving enterprise with up to 700 employees. Older inhabitants of the town recall when the factory operated three-shifts some 50 years ago. But such times are long past.
One worker with 37 years in the plant told a WSWS reporter how he had begun his apprenticeship there as a toolmaker and in recent years had worked predominantly in the production of spare parts. The situation for many workers is very bitter, he explained:
“Entire lives are at stake. There are many workers who began their working lives here, built a house and have small children. And then suddenly one day we were informed that everything is gone. After working here for over 35 years, I’m told that as of January 1, I can only inspect my workplace from the other side of the factory gate.”
An HWU employee who has worked as a toolmaker at the factory for 20 years stressed that the jobs situation in the region was very bad: “In the extreme case, you would have to move away from here to find new work. But under conditions where everybody has the same idea it will be difficult to find work.”
A somewhat younger worker, who started at the factory as an apprentice in 1988, pointed to the anger of the HWU employees—in particular because they had been informed about the factory’s plight at such a late stage. Workers are angry that all the skills and knowledge built up over decades of employment are now considered worthless and summarily being dismissed.
The WSWS also spoke with the chairman of the works council, Steffen Schmidt, and his deputy, Alfred Butt. When asked why IG Metall had done nothing to organise a more extensive campaign to defend the workers’ jobs, they responded by referring to disputes between the “works council princes” (union officials) active in the big car plants, who are intent on defending their own factories at the expense of all others and therefore make impossible any sort of broader solidarity between different plants and their workforces.
The perspective of IG Metall
The announcement of the closure of the facility was preceded by a series of measures aimed at reorganising the factory and which involved considerable sacrifices on the part of the workforce. The union enforced these measures by arguing that they were the only alternative to job cuts and HWU’s closing down. The result now is the complete closure of the plant. The perspective of ‘saving jobs’ by accepting wage cuts and other concessions failed catastrophically.
In 2002, IG Metall signed a contract with HWU involving a year-long reduction of the working week from 35 to 30 hours for its 225 employees with a 14 percent cut in wages. Just two years after the expiry of this contract, management announced the first bankruptcy of the factory in October 2005. The bankruptcy procedure at that time called for the shedding of 80 jobs.
IG Metall officials reacted by reaching a new contract, which abolished existing Christmas benefits and accepted other concessions. This contract ran until September 2007, when it was replaced by another involving further attacks on wages and working conditions, including the abolition of holiday pay. In return, workers were given a guarantee that their jobs would be safe until the end of 2009. This assurance has now been consigned to the waste bin following the latest declaration of bankruptcy.
The various concessions made by the trade union were incapable of saving a single job. Instead the workers were left unprepared for the planned closure of the factory. The union and the works council now regard the closure of the factory as inevitable. Their only concern is how best to negotiate the option of a possible transfer company.
IG Metall is trying to call off the occupation to ensure that the auto companies supplied by HWU receive the needed parts. The bureaucracy’s main concern is the smooth working of the German auto industry, not the fate of the HWU or any other workers.
HWU workers should establish contact with workers at these companies, independently of IG Metall, and organise a common struggle to defend jobs and production. The only future for auto workers lies in a fight for socialist policies and the nationalization of the industry under workers’ control.
In order to step up pressure on workers to return to work, managing director Strodtkötter posted a letter on the company bulletin board Tuesday afternoon threatening the immediate sacking of workers who refused to return to work. He also announced that striking workers would be forced to pay large sums to compensate for lost production.
The occupation of the HWU factory should be supported by all workers. It raises important political questions, which are relevant for workers at other companies. The most important of these questions is: who controls the productive forces and in whose interest should they be organised?
Argentine bank employees to strike this week
Bank employees in Argentina last week rejected a 5 percent wage increase. Union leader Juan José Zanola called the offer a provocation. He also accused the banks of hiring goons to frighten bank employees into resigning. Over 1,500 employees have been forced to resign that way; a procedure that the union calls ‘disguised sackings.'
"In any case," he said, "we will strike on December 11 and 12, and we decided to add the 15th and 16th to continue to press for our wage demands." Contract negotiations are at a standstill, despite a government imposed cooling-off period and the intervention of a government mediator.
Argentine banks have been hit hard by the world financial crisis. This is now taking the form of capital flight. Over US $ 4 billion left the country in October. The total for the year is expected to top US $ 25 billion.
French ports workers strike
Port workers at the Fos-Lavera oil hub near Marseille have been on strike for a week, according to latest reports. Their action has blocked almost 50 ships, including 13 oil tankers and 22 oil product vessels, three chemical and seven gas tankers from entering France’s largest oil port.
The strike is in protest at the privatisation of the port complex. French unions and port employers signed an agreement in October, opening the way to privatise seven ports, including Fos-Lavera. The strategic port, with an annual oil traffic of 64.2 million tonnes, supplies crude to six refineries in southern and eastern France with an output capacity of 800,000 barrels per day (bpd). Crude from the terminal also supplies the 310,000-bpd Miro refinery in Germany and the 68,000-bpd Cressier refinery in Switzerland.
France’s petroleum industry body, UFIP, said that the dispute had cost the oil industry US$1.0-1.5 million a day and was forcing refiners to lower their output.
A Marseille port spokeswoman said that a final deal, which will see private companies take over unloading at the docks previously run by the state, needs to be approved by the end of January.
Mass demonstrations in Ireland to counter attacks on education
Between 40,000 and 70,000 people protested in Dublin on December 6 against spending cuts in education in what is believed to have been the largest demonstration in the capital since protests against the Iraq war. The protest formed part of a growing number of demonstrations against recent government policy announcements.
The demonstration was intended to highlight issues such as the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, the removal of free book schemes and English support teachers, the condition of school buildings and the removal of grants for Traveller education.
Protesters carried numerous placards, including ones that read, “Schools Unite Against Cuts,” “Leave Our Kids Alone,” “Don’t Make Our Children Pay” and “28:1, Good Odds for a Horse, Not A Child.”
Teachers, parents and children marched from Parnell Square to Merrion Square as a series of nationwide protests against education cuts reached its climax. The march was organised jointly by the Association of Secondary Teachers (ASTI), the INTO and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI).
The unions claim that altogether 120,000 people have now marched against the school spending measures in the budget when previous demonstrations in Donegal, Cork, Galway and Tullamore are considered.
Tens of thousands of teachers, students and parents have held a series of protests against staff shortages and increased class sizes in recent months. The government recently gave in to one of the teachers’ demands and allocated additional funding to hire substitute teachers in secondary schools.
The government presented the 2009 budget in October, almost two months earlier than usual, to respond to a rising shortfall in tax revenues after Ireland slid into recession. This week, it said a further deterioration in public finances showed it would miss some targets set out in the 2009 budget. The government expects the 2009 budget deficit to reach 6.5 percent of gross domestic product, more than double the level allowed by European Union rules, despite cutting spending and raising several different taxes in October.
Irish childcare workers and parents protest
Hundreds of parents and childcare workers protested, December 11, in response to controversial government funding changes they believe could devastate the sector and lead to widespread creche closures, according to the Irish Independent.
The protests in Dublin and Cork are aimed at forcing a “re-think” on the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS) that, critics claim, will generate both higher fees and the closure of smaller creches.
Childcare organiser at the union, SIPTU, Darrragh O’Connor said, “Up until recently, projects received a staffing grant that allowed them to set fees that took full account of the individual circumstances of each family. However, the introduction of the CCSS has seen this replaced by a rigid set of criteria that has seen fees rise dramatically for many low-wage families.”
In some cases, the impact on fees has been enormous—with some facilities increasing their charges for working parents by €113 a week. One parent, Michael Daly, of the Brooklodge Community Playschool, in Glanmire, Cork, said that the new government funding policies are making life impossible.
“There are roughly 40 children in the group—and it became very apparent last week that the playschool will be in a deficit of up to €4,000 and the parents will have to make-up the shortfall. And a lot of parents are finding it hard in the current economic climate,” he said.
Strike threats from UK postal workers
Postal workers in the Bridgwater area of Somerset have voted to strike over their working conditions, according to the BBC. Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) plan to walk out at Christmas in protest at their full-time jobs being replaced with part-time roles.
The dates of the strikes have yet to be announced.
Around 400 postal workers at the Bolton Mail Centre in Farnworth are to stage a 24-hour strike on December 19—one of the busiest mail days of the year—in protest at plans to close the centre.
The Stonehill Road depot is due to shut in 2010 as part of a Royal Mail cost-cutting exercise. In a ballot, CWU members at the depot voted by 77 percent in favour of the strike. Other Royal Mail centres at Stockport, Crewe and Liverpool will also be shut on the same day because of industrial action.
Rail workers on London Tube in second strike for pay parity
Rail workers responsible for finding structural faults and maintaining the electrical supply to London’s underground rail network began their second 36-hour strike December 7 after employer EDF Energy Powerlink refused to budge on their claim for pay parity with day workers.
Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) General Secretary Bob Crow said, “Despite the overwhelming vote for action and an absolutely rock-solid strike in November, EDF Energy Powerlink has so far refused to acknowledge that shift testers should have pay-parity with their non-shift colleagues. Day-work staff rightly received a £3,000 increase for delivering flexibility, and their shift-working colleagues are simply seeking recognition of the flexibility they too have delivered, not least in accepting sweeping shift changes that have disrupted their work-life balance.”
Shift testers are responsible for finding and fixing faults at London Underground’s more than 250 power substations and maintaining the power supply. In ballots in October, RMT members voted by 21 to 2 for strike action and by 22 to 1 for action short of strikes. The first 36-hour strike by the 250 shift testers was held between November 16 and 18. Since November 16, they have made themselves unavailable for work after the end of any turns unless there is a direct and imminent danger to human life.
Demonstration by the Iraqi engineers in central Baghdad
Around 250 engineers took part in a sit-in, December 2, at Firdos Square in central Baghdad. The workers later on marched to the Ministry of Agriculture. Demonstrators demanded the restoration of professional allowances that were halted after April 9, 2003.
The protest was organised by the Union of Agricultural Engineers. Representatives of unions of teachers, veterinarians and health professionals also joined the protest. The president of the union announced that if its demands are not met by the Ministry of Agriculture, the union will call for a general strike in all the ministries across Iraq.
Striking Chevron oil workers injured by security forces in Nigeria
On December 3, striking workers at the Chevron plant in the Delta area of Nigeria set up a picket outside the plant. Vanguard reported that the strikers used more than 100 tankers to barricade the entrance to the plant and temporarily halted traffic along the NPA Expressway. The strikers were protesting the threatened sacking of 122 workers for indicating their interest in joining the National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPENG).
According to Vanguard, “Anti-crime mobile, regular policemen and soldiers, who were drafted in to beef up security at the company, threw tear gas and used gun butts to beat members of the union in an orchestrated effort to break up their rank[s].”
Fifteen strikers were injured, and some of them had to be taken to hospital for treatment.
The local NUPENG chairperson, who was beaten by the security personnel, said, “We are here to tell Deltans [residents of the Niger Delta] and Nigerians of police and soldiers’ brutality on innocent Nigerians…. Today we are at Chevron’s gate right now to protest CNL management grand design to flush out NUPENG members in the company’s operations.” He claimed that Chevron gave the security operatives an order to shoot on sight.
Namibian fish factory workers on strike over pay
Workers at Pescanova fish factory in Lüderitz, Namibia, went out on strike on December 9, after pay negotiations failed to produce an agreement.
In previous years, there have been several strikes and other disputes at the factory. Last year, a strike over pay and the company’s failure to honor an agreement to make temporary workers permanent was narrowly averted.
Nigerian doctors on strike
Civil service doctors in Anambra State, Nigeria, have been on strike for two months. The dispute is over an unpaid 22 percent salary increase, which has been approved for doctors nationwide. Another cause of anger is the gulf that has opened up between their terms of employment and those of the specialist doctors.
Doctors employed within local government, where they are designated medial officers of health, and hospital consultants are continuing to work.
The all-out indefinite strike of Nigerian judiciary staff, which began on December 1, continues to paralyze the law courts. In Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, the gates of the High Court have been locked, and in other areas of the country, gates leading to judicial complexes have been barricaded.
A representative of the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria told the press that the action, which is over pay and conditions, would last until the government calls the union back to the negotiating table.
United States - Oregon truckers protest termination of retiree benefits
Truckers rallied outside Oak Harbor Freight Lines in Portland, Oregon, last Thursday to protest the company's abrupt decision to strip retirees of health care benefits. The termination of retiree benefits is the company's latest maneuver during a strike involving about 600 truckers from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho that is now in its 12th week.
Bob Anderson, a 14-year driver at the Portland terminal, stated, "We believe our retirees have upheld their part of the bargain, and now the company is abandoning them. The retirees are the people who built Oak Harbor Freight. It seems as if the company is done with them now and wants to get rid of them."
Retiree Marv Deegan added, "What the company has done to us is making it difficult to eat. When you are on a fixed income and you have to pay a huge amount just to keep your health care, there is hardly enough money left for food."