Sometimes, surveying the wider world as well as just the autos biz, I wonder if some unions – or their leaders – have a sort of death wish for the companies for whom their members toil.

After all, when the car plant/airline/meatworks/post office/etc is on strike the workers don’t usually draw pay but the union bosses who called the brothers out normally remain on salary, with pensions and perks preserved for the duration.

Right now, parts of the UK Post Office have been idled as a long-running row over cost reductions (ie job cuts) in the face of rising private competition (eg FedEx) and growing use of electronic mail reduces ‘snailmail’ volume. The US also needs to trim its postal service for much the same reasons so I expect there’ll be some industrial niggle across the Atlantic pond sometime soon.

All this hurts the employer with a knock-on effect that may well end up with the axing of the very jobs the strikers claim they want to save by walking out. Or the company could go bust or get taken over with the inevitable attrition.

British Leyland, once the UK’s largest automaker but frequently crippled by strikes ever since Austin and Morris merged to form Bmc in the early 1950s, survived 1970s union militancy as a much smaller company, eventually wound up as MG Rover and is now just a memory; the famous Longbridge, Birmingham site that once drew the world’s rival carmakers to see how the British build vehicles (it’s true) now a business park.

Postal customers’ mail gets lost or delayed in the post-strike chaos so they switch to FedEx, private couriers and e-mail. Ergo, the PO needs fewer sorters, drivers and postpersons. British Airways seems to get hit by some sort of strike almost every summer so people whose hard-earned holiday gets delayed, shortened or even cancelled switch to rivals (and we’ve plenty), never to return. And, if they can, some get extra revenge on BA by yanking their firm’s lucrative business travel and premium cabin bookings across to waiting rivals like Virgin Atlantic. One guess who gets hurt the most.

True, there are always two sides to every story and, if talks break down and a workforce goes walkabout, they, management and bolshie unions should all share the blame.

All this came sharply into focus this week at Ssangyong, as lurid reports came in of police being lowered in cages from helicopters onto factory roofs, rubber bullets flying, liquid tear gas being sprayed from the choppers, and workers barricaded into plant sections (including a mob holed up with inflammable substances in the paint shop). It sounded more like a war zone but this was actually all happening in a South Korean SUV factory.

At issue was the bankrupt automaker’s rather urgent need to cut its workforce to match current low demand for its oddly named mud-pluggers in the face of a radical union unable or unwilling to see reason.

Rather than considering some jobs better than no jobs, while creditors lined up outside court ready to finally tip Ssangyong over the edge into Korea’s equivalent of Chapter 11 liquidation, some workers lined up petrol bombs and staged the sit-in. For days. Eventually, reason prevailed with a deal that will restart output and lead to fewer redundancies than planned and today’s updates showed the damage was less than you might expect. Some vehicles might even get built within a few weeks after a July sales tally of just 71 units. Production? 0.

Which leaves me wondering what will happen when Opel’s destiny is finally known? Will the powerful German unions stage major walkouts and protests? Understandably worried workers have already been on the streets earlier this year once it was known the century-old automaker was on the block.

This week, we still know only that two bidders remain in the race, Magna (which just reported big losses) ahead (though there are issues still to be sorted, and that talks are progressing.

Interesting times ahead, methinks.

Enjoy your weekend.

Graeme Roberts
Deputy/News Editor