Opels Bochum plant in Germany, opened in 1964, is one of two plants most likely to be closed

Opel's Bochum plant in Germany, opened in 1964, is one of two plants most likely to be closed

On this sunny, warm (by British standards) day, it's looking 'orribly like it's going to be a Spring of Discontent for General Motors Europe's Opel and Vauxhall unions and factory workers. Our own and other media's sources are now saying the closure of one or two European plants is looking inevitable, and on the agenda of a planned Opel supervisory board meeting.

Opel, unsurprisingly, has declined to comment on the increasingly intense speculation but, as our business editor Simon Warburton reported today, events could now move quickly as that supervisory board meeting is scheduled for early next week.

As Simon noted today: "Intense speculation is focusing on Opel/Vauxhall's Bochum site in Germany, Ellesmere Port in the UK, or both, which could be under threat, although union sources insist to just-auto that parent General Motors cannot act in any case until 2014."

GME unions are already on the case, as we report here.

Only the hardest of hearts would not have some sympathy with the GM executives dealing with this conundrum inherited largely from previous management. 'The German Patient' is suffering from slow sales in a depressed overall European new car market, high costs due to facility locations and powerful German unions, keen to protect members' jobs at any price, and inadequate utilisation of an excessive number of plants for its immediately foreseeable sales volumes.

Not every German-based automaker has this problem, of course. As I noted in this column last week, BMW and VW just turned in the sort of full-year 2011 profit results to reduce rival executives to tears, enjoying the benefits of must-have products of global appeal, earlier cost cutting initiatives, and a strategy that doesn't place too much emphasis on the European market.

In contrast, GM Europe, whose products - critically - are sold largely in Europe, has been losing money for years; previous attempts to stem the haemmorrgaging haven't worked and it is, bluntly, amputation time; one or two plants have to go.

Should GM's supervisory board have the bottle to do this, and it looks like they will, in the face of recent, heartfelt pleas from unions both here in the UK and Germany, UK politicians on their knees at GM HQ in Detroit, (and recalling the involvement of Germany's politicians the last time The Axe was wielded in 2009), it could well - as we report today - encourage other automakers struggling in Europe to also shutter plants.

Pan-European unions have cited recent comments by Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne - whose company partners with GM on vans in Europe and also supplies some Opel diesel engines - concerning capacity reduction as a "green light" for other automakers to wield axes of their own. Marchionne, who has done a fine job restructuring and rebuilding Chrysler, you'd agree, has recently mooted the potential shutting of two plants - in Italy - as Fiat also struggles in Europe. Like GM, Fiat/Chrysler has alternative plants with room to take up the slack - in the US and Mexico, for example. After all, buyers these days largely don't know or care where their new car is final-assembled.

Marchionne, as we also reported today, also has to contend with apparently bone-headed unions - within and without - that apparently don't appreciate the seriousness of the European automakers' current plight, and maybe harbour a deathwish for their jobs. Cue Simon's report on that: "Fiat says a month-long strike by car transporter workers is pushing the Italian auto sector to "breaking point" as the manufacturer's own unions continue to militate on labour reforms. The automaker is reporting the situation is rapidly worsening with vehicles being set on fire and non-striking drivers threatened with violence if they do not participate in the walk-out, while hardline union FIOM says its own members have been prevented from taking industrial action due to their compatriot's blockade."

And then there's PSA. And Renault.

These automakers, and their hard-pressed top executives, are all currently between a rock and a hard place. Risk union, political and public backlash to cut plant numbers and overhead, keep the ship profitable and keep at least the majority of your workers employed? Or risk the lot, keep everything running as is and face the inevitable bankruptcy and ruin that did for MG Rover and may yet sink Saab forever?

I wouldn't have their jobs for quids.

Have a nice weekend.

Graeme Roberts, Deputy Editor, just-auto.com