Conflict over terms of closure of Opel plant

In recent months, there has been widespread opposition to the decision of General Motors (GM) Europe to close its Opel Azambuja plant on the outskirts of Lisbon and to transfer production abroad. The closure, which is planned for December 2006, will directly affect some 1,200 workers. Negotiations following the announcement broke down between the European Employee Forum (EEF) and GM Europe, and Opel Azambuja workers responded by taking strike action. However, in September, the workers decided to end the strike on foot of a decision by EEF to permit the Opel Azambuja Workers’ Committee to negotiate directly with GM Europe.

In February 2006, the General Motors European Works Council and the European Employee Forum (EEF), which is the trade union coordination group for General Motors Europe (GM Europe), expressed their opposition to a plan by GM Europe to relocate the production unit of its Combo plant in Azambuja to another factory abroad. The organisations demanded solutions to safeguard the production unit and the 1,200 jobs concerned.

Background

Ford and General Motors started operations in Azambuja, on the outskirts of Lisbon, in 1963. The Azambuja plant is, at present, the sole production facility for the Combo vehicle – a small two-box van. Although the Azambuja plant is currently only involved in manufacturing the Combo model, it has the capabilities to also build the Corsa car and van if required. In 2001, Opel invested €130 million in modernising the plant. This involved tripling the number of welding robots, installation of a new conveyor system in assembly, and construction of a waterborne paint shop. The Azambuja plant was the first Opel plant in Europe to use the latter technology for metallic paint and under-body PVC insulation.

Although the modernisation increased the automation rate at Azambuja, it did not change the plant’s overall goal to remain competitive by balancing human labour and robotics. As a fully-fledged member of GM’s production network, Azambuja has instituted the Global Manufacturing System (GMS) and works with other production facilities in Europe to standardise best practices and solve individual problems. According to internal statements given by GM management, the GM plant is its most productive facility, with the exception of the Eisenach plant in Germany, and has the lowest labour costs after Gliwice in Poland. Currently, the Azambuja plant employs 1,200 workers and produces some 350 vehicles daily.

Negotiations

During a meeting in Lisbon on 11 July 2006, EEF and representatives of the works council in Azambuja were informed about the plant closure by GM management. GM Europe is planning to close the plant in December 2006 and to transfer production abroad, possibly to Spain, arguing that the move will involve lower production costs. Widespread opposition has been generated in relation to this plan in recent months, involving the GM European Works Council, EEF, workers from other GM plants in Europe, and social actors at national and European level. The Portuguese government, left-wing parties in the parliament and in the European Parliament, as well as trade union confederations, have expressed their opposition to the proposed closure, fearing the extensive negative economic and social consequences it will entail. Meanwhile, the actions of employees at all of GM Europe’s 18 locations have shown massive solidarity (HU0607069I), although this failed ultimately to keep the Azambuja plant open.

On 4 September, a new round of negotiations took place in Zurich between EEF and GM Europe. At the negotiations, GM Europe proposed a compensation package that did not exceed the minimum legal requirements, which was rejected by EEF. The multinational proposed to pay the workers unemployment compensation at a rate of 1.75% of wages for each year of service, together with two years’ health insurance and subsidies for school children. Given that the average age of the employees is around 37 years, the trade unions estimate that the average level of compensation could reach approximately €25,000.

Strike action

The workers considered GM Europe’s proposals to be unacceptable. Following difficult negotiations with the company, employees of the Opel Azambuja plant decided in their general assembly to cease production for an indefinite period of time. During the three-day production stoppage, the receipt and dispatching of vehicles and components were boycotted. On 7 September, following two further general assembly meetings, the workers decided to end the strike action and demanded a return to negotiations. This decision was influenced by the fact that EEF decided to delegate to the Workers’ Committee (Comissão de trabalhadores, CT) of Opel Azambuja the opportunity to negotiate directly with GM Europe without any intermediaries.

The CT is demanding the continuation of production until 2009, the payment of wages until the end of 2008, and employment solutions for the plant’s current employees; the latter demand would require the creation of another production unit within the same branch, thus safeguarding the 1,200 jobs affected. The plant installations, estimated at a value of €74 million, according to the unions, could be used for this purpose.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima and Reinhard Naumman, Dinâmia

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