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Fighting for Their Lives: Thousands of Opel Workers Demonstrate against GM

Some 60,000 employees of GM subsidiaries in Europe laid down their tools on Thursday to take part in protests aimed at saving their jobs. Huge losses in Detroit threaten to doom the German carmaker Opel, and the workers want a divorce from the parent company.

With American automotive giant General Motors struggling to survive amid the worst car industry downturn since 1982, employees of the company's European subsidiary Opel laid down their tools on Thursday to take part in mass demonstrations in a last ditch effort to save their jobs.

Over 15,000 workers gathered at Opel's flagship factory in the western German industrial city of Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt with a total of 60,000 people joining protests at 14 Opel factories across Europe. "It is no longer five to midnight, the clock has already struck midnight," Klaus Franz, head of Opel's works council, told the gathered workers at Opel headquarters. "There is only one single chance, and that is spinning off Opel from the GM group."

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will be running against Chancellor Angela Merkel in general elections this September, also attended the Thursday protest, saying he was doing everything he could for Opel. "We all agree that it is up to GM management. GM has long earned good money with Opel. It would be obscene were they now to throw away European factories like a squeezed-out lemon."

Graphic: GM in Europe
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: GM in Europe

In addition to protests in Germany, workers were set to walk out at Saab in Sweden, at the Vauxhall division in Britain and at other factories in Austria, France, Spain and Hungary. Dozens of demonstrators in Germany carried signs evoking Barack Obama's recent successful presidential campaign, reading "Yes We Can, Without GM."

The protests come as GM announced losses in the fourth-quarter of 2008 of fully $9.6 billion (€7.5 billion), bringing the company's minus for the year to $30.9 billion. The Detroit-based giant has said it will cut 47,000 jobs worldwide with 26,000 of those coming outside the US. Company head Rick Wagoner is in talks with Washington about a much-needed capital injection and has also asked foreign governments for $6 billion to prop up its foreign operations.

Partially as a result of GM's troubles, Opel too has been haemorrhaging money, losing $1.9 billion in 2008. The company did, however, manage to sell a record number of cars in January as a result of a German measure aimed at stimulating car sales. The company employs 25,000 workers in Germany along with thousands more at factories in Britain, Belgium, Poland and Portugal.

In Germany, many say that a split from its Detroit parent is the only thing that can save the carmaker. And, as became clear on Thursday, Opel workers are furious with GM for the predicament they currently find themselves in. "They built up overcapacity around the world without regard for losses," Berthold Huber, head of the union IG Metall, told protesters at Rüsselsheim. "And they have built models with the aerodynamics of a barn door and the weight of a small tank." He said that, given high fuel costs and growing unemployment, such cars are "as necessary as freezers at the North Pole."

Berlin is currently waiting for Opel and GM to present a plan to streamline the company, expected on Friday, before deciding how to proceed. Chancellor Merkel said on Thursday that her government would only help if the plan was sustainable. "Only then can we consider what kind of aid is necessary," she said.

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL from government sources on Thursday, it is estimated that Opel, in addition to the €3.3 billion it is already thought to need, requires a further €2.3 billion in capital and liquidity. Until recently, the federal government estimated that it would have to provide Opel loan guarantees totalling €1.8 billion. But SPIEGEL reported only one week ago that the company's liquidity requirements had risen to €3.3 billion.

German news agency DPA also cited unnamed Opel and GM managers who said the company's capital needs would be €8 billion to €9 billion.

Opel boss Hans Demant denied the reports on Thursday. "I don't know anything about this figure -- it is absurdly high," he said at the company's Rüsselsheim plant. Works council chief Klaus Franz also stated the numbers were "nonsense."

Managers from the carmaker as well as representatives of the federal and state governments met on Tuesday to negotiate a possible aid deal. The German government has said one condition of any aid package would be that no money could flow into GM's coffers in the United States.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article SPIEGEL incorrectly reported it had information that Opel would require €9 billion in long-term aid. This has been corrected in the current version.

cgh -- with wire reports

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