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Business

Both Sides Dig in For Long Fight in Opel Stand-off

Managers and workers representatives at German car maker Opel met on Monday to resolve the bitter stand-off over proposed mass redundancies. As negotiations continued, neither side was giving ground.

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Families joined striking Opel workers on the fifth day of protests

Workers at car maker Opel halted production at a factory in Bochum, north west Germany, for the fifth day in a row on Monday in continuing protest against plans by the group's US parent General Motors' to slash thousands of jobs in Europe.

But with every sign that both sides were prepared to dig their heels in over the escalating labor conflict, politicians urged employees to end the wildcat strikes and hold constructive talks with management to negotiate the long-term future of the site.

The assembly lines at Bochum were silent for the fifth day in a row on Monday, as workers, ignoring calls by the government and Opel's general works council for a return to work, voted unanimously to stay outside the factory gates.

Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement warned that the workers' hard-line stance could jeopardize the crucial restructuring talks between management and unions which began in Opel's headquarters in Rüsselsheim on Monday.

"Employees who stand in front of the gates will not improve the chances of safeguarding the plant," Clement said. He could understand the workers' point of view, "but that does change my opinion that it is wrong", the minister said.

Government spokesman Bela Anda urged employees to talk constructively with management so as not to weaken the Bochum site in the long run.

Regional premier calls for calm

Streik bei Opel

"To GM: Keep the Bochum plant alive," reads the sign.

Peer Steinbrueck, the regional premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Bochum is based, also called for calm. Steinbrueck said he could understand workers' anger, but striking would not help. "If we want to have a long-term perspective for the Bochum site and avoid compulsory redundancies, we have to remain level-headed and professional in the way we go about finding a solution," he said.

The head of the general works council at Opel, Klaus Franz, took a similar tack. He told the business daily Handelsblatt that the work stoppages at Bochum were understandable from an emotional point of view. But the action could jeopardize negotiations between management and unions.

"We need an intelligent strategy on the part of workers that entails both negotiation and fight," he said. Franz was optimistic that a solution could be found, but he warned: "Let there be no illusion -- we won't be able to get around compulsory redundancies."

Bochum workers claim self-defense

Streik bei Opel in Bochum

Bochum workers refuse to go back to work.

The workers at Bochum, however, remained adamant. "It's self-defense," said the head of Bochum's works council Lothar Marquardt. "People are afraid for their livelihood." Production at Bochum has been halted since Thursday.

The work stoppages in Bochum were already having a knock-on effect on supply of parts used to build Opel's Astra model at factories elsewhere in Europe, Marquardt said. A Europe-wide stoppage could cost General Motors €10-30 million ($12-37 million) a day, he said.

A labor expert in Munich, Volker Rieble, dubbed the stoppages wildcat strikes, since the unions had not officially called for them and they were not directly connected with concrete wage demands. As such, the wildcat strikes are illegal under Germany's labor laws.

Don't expect rapid results, says negotiator

A spokesman for Opel cautioned the talks that began between union and management on Monday were not likely to yield any rapid results. A timeframe and the size of the cost cuts had to be established first, he said, declining to provide any details about the exact venue or the anticipated length of the first round of talks.

Last Thursday, General Motors said it planned to slash 12,000 jobs in Europe -- or around one fifth of its workforce in the region -- in an attempt to steer its European operations back into profit after six years of losses. Most of the cuts would be made in Germany, with the plants in Bochum and in Rüsselsheim in the main line of fire.

Unions and employee representatives have called workers at all GM sites in Europe to take part in demonstrations and protest marches on Tuesday.

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