Crisis and uncertainty in automotive sector

Rising uncertainty surrounding the future of the automotive sector in Spain comes at a time when the current economic and financial crisis is having an uneven effect, depending on companies’ strategy in the sector and the dealings of the public administrations. Motor companies Nissan in Catelonia and Opel in Aragon are faced with restructuring plans, resulting in the dismissal of workers. In the case of Opel, the restructuring involves plants in other European countries.

Restructuring at Nissan and Opel

The autonomous communities of Catalonia and Aragon in northeastern Spain have to face restructuring plans in the car manufacturing companies Nissan and Opel, but with highly significant differences. In Catalonia, for instance, the conflict at Nissan affects regional industrial relations and has received considerable support from the Catalan government. However, the restructuring operations at Opel in Aragon stretch beyond the limits of the Spanish state as it is part of General Motors’ (GM) restructuring of its European subsidiaries Opel and Vauxhall. It has therefore led to the involvement of the company’s European Works Council (EWC) – known as the European Employees’ Forum (EEF) – the governments of five countries and the European institutions, with an important role played by the European Commission in the fields of enterprise and competition (EU0910029I, UK0911049I).

Case of Nissan

In carrying out its initial restructuring, Nissan has come up against a tough stumbling block in Spain as a result of the political efforts of trade unions and policymakers in Catalonia, which included a visit by the President of the Catalan government, José Montilla, to Nissan headquarters in Japan. This effort, in addition to the economic incentives offered to the company by the Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade (Ministerio de Industria, Turismo y Comercio, MITYC), has reduced the demands of dismissals of the Japanese factory. The peculiarity of the Spanish labour system must also be considered; for example, in the case of collective dismissals, an employer is required to compile a report justifying the causes of the dismissals, which must be approved by the local labour authority. In this case, given the importance of Nissan’s operations in the Catalonia region and the financial assistance awarded to the company, the labour authority has carried out a careful examination of the managers’ arguments with respect to the lack of viability of the two plants in Catalonia.

This context alone explains how the company’s plan has been reversed. In December 2008, Nissan requested authorisation to permanently dismiss 1,680 workers. However, in February 2009, the company and the majority trade unions reached agreement on a feasibility plan. Under this plan, in exchange for approving a large number of temporary dismissals affecting 3,783 workers, Catalonia was promised the production of Nissan’s NV 2000 van, originally intended for Tangiers in northern Morocco, with the added guarantee of a new product for the two plants in Catalonia in 2012. Despite this agreement, tension and uncertainty remain at the company. The permanent dismissal of 698 workers was approved in July 2009, followed in September by the approval of new temporary dismissals that will affect 1,948 workers between 1 October 2009 and 31 March 2010.

Case of Opel

In the case of Opel, the situation is rather complex due to a preliminary agreement by GM to sell 55% of Opel Europe to the consortium composed of the Austrian-Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna and its Russian partner Sberbank. The German government approved the consortium’s plan and agreed to give public aid to the company, plus a bridge loan of €1.5 billion from the federal government of Berlin. Mistrust began to emerge with the revelation that the Magna project included a plan to dismiss 10,500 of the company’s 50,000 European workers. Such a plan would mostly affect the Antwerp plant in Belgium, which was to be closed, the Luton plant in the United Kingdom, with a reduction of the payroll, and the various plants in Spain with 1,700 dismissals. By contrast, Germany would lose jobs at the Bochum plant in the west of the country, but would increase the workforce in the Rüsselheim plant in central-west Germany, due mainly to a reduction in staff in the plant in Aragon, according to information from the trade unions and the Spanish government.

In view of the situation at Opel, the Spanish Minister for Industry, Tourism and Trade, Miguel Sebastián, sent a letter to the European Union asking the Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, Günter Verheugen, for ‘a solution conceived with a European dimension and not in relation to each country’. The minister highlighted the report drawn up by the independent company Harbour, which reveals that the productivity levels of the Spanish plant place it among the 10 most competitive plants in the world. On 3 November 2009, after months of negotiations, GM abandoned the plan to sell its European subsidiaries to the Magna-Sberbank consortium.

Commentary

GM’s decision to ditch its plan to sell Opel and Vauxhall to the Magna-Sberbank consortium has generated certain optimism in Spain, as initial restructuring plans might provide for a better outlook for the Spanish Opel plant. Further information on GM’s restructuring of its European subsidiaries is expected in the near future to clarify a process marked by uncertainty, suspicions of protectionism and the collapse of the company’s EWC which, under current circumstances, has reconsidered the concept of transnational solidarity forged in recent years.

Pablo Sanz de Miguel, CIREM Foundation

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