GERMANY [updated 17:30BST]: Opel supervisory board seen closing plants in 2015
GM Opel's Bochum factory. Opened in 1962 to build the Kadett (Ellesmere Port was built to make the similar Viva for Vauxhall), it employed 16,000 workers at its peak, now down to 3,100 today
Though General Motors Europe is likely to honour labour agreements keeping both plants open to the end of 2014, today's Opel supervisory board meeting was expected to earmark both Bochum in Germany and Ellesmere Port in England - both 50 years old this year - for closure, probably in 2015 - but the two plants were not mentioned specifically in despatches in the event.
Bochum would be hit particularly hard, a Reuters report noted on Wednesday (28 March). Once home to a thriving coal and steel industry in the heart of the Ruhr basin, the city underwent painful restructuring as the mines shut between 1960 and 1980. Opel's factory, built to make the Kadett coupe as a roomier alternative to the Volkswagen Beetle, was opened in the early 1960s during the heyday of West Germany's post-war economic boom. But declining auto sales and cost reductions by US parent GM led Opel to abandon capacity over the past two decades and confine production in Bochum to less than half the 170 hectares it owns.
Some perspective came from a schoolteacher visiting with a party of pupils yesterday.
"We've been coming here since 1979," Detlef Holzhauer, 61, told Reuters. "Back in those days, Opel had 16,000 workers here. That shows the scale of the whole demise, and we've been watching it all happening."
According to Reuters, Opel's problems aren't the only yardstick for Bochum's decline. In 2008, mobile phone maker Nokia closed a local facility with 2,300 jobs and moved production to low-cost Romania. Unemployment in Bochum was 10% in February, compared with a national average of 7.4%.
"You can turn off the lights in Bochum if the factory is shut down," Andreas Graf Praschma, a former spokesman for Opel's Bochum operations, who worked for the carmaker during major strikes in 2004 against the American owners' restructuring plans, told the news agency.
Opel suppliers such as Ernst Doeren, which packages tyres for the GM division and other auto manufacturers, and Johnson Controls Objekt Bochum, a local unit of the US-based seat and interiors maker, said their business would suffer if GM were to close down the Opel plant.
"Opel is the pulse generator for the local economy," said Ernst Ulrich Doeren, managing partner of the Bochum-based supplier. "Thousands of jobs would be lost at one stroke."
It would be at least 20,000, according to Joerg Linden, spokesman for the Bochum-based IHK chambers of commerce, including the 3,100 at the plant itself, and the rest at suppliers, transporters and retailers.
Reuters said Opel workers, who have contributed EUR265m (GBP222m) per year in wage concessions to restructuring efforts, expect this year's golden anniversary to be the Bochum plant's last hurrah.
"I expect the plant to be shut down in 2015," said a former painter at Opel, who now works for an outplacement company on the Bochum site, and did not want to be named.
"We got no pay increase whatsoever for 10 years, and now this."
"All those sacrifices on wages have been for nothing," said a 48-year-old worker who arranges parts in production and drives a forklift truck. He, too, was unwilling to be named.
It's not much different at Ellesmere Port in England, the news agency report noted, where the only other large employers are an oil refinery and a retail park. As in the Ruhr, the industries of England's northwest have seen better days.
"Ellesmere Port has been a very strong performing plant for GM but it is not solely down to economics," said Peter Wells, the head of the centre for automotive industry research at Cardiff University. "If GM feels the need to close two plants, I think politically it would be very difficult for the company to close two plants in Germany and this fact makes Ellesmere Port much more vulnerable."
A local official for the Unite trade union, John Featherstone, said the workers were angry that their future would come down to politics. "It doesn't make sense," he said. "We're very bitter to even be considered."
That unease has spread along Vauxhall's supply chain, Reuters noted. A manager at one of its British-based suppliers, who asked not to be named, said: "We're feeling nervous because a lot of our products go into Ellesmere Port, and if we were to lose that contract it would have a huge impact on our business. We would have to cut staff ourselves if it goes."
Some have seen it all before. One retired Vauxhall employee of almost 30 years' standing, whose son still works there, said threats of closure had been routine since the plant opened in Ellesmere Port: "It's been 50 years, and ever since I started there the plant has been closing," he recalled. "All I know is my boy tells me, 'We can't work any harder'."