The green transition cannot be an excuse to lay off workers
“It’s a disaster,” says Giuseppe Ciccone, outside a Bosch engineering factory in Munich, Germany. During a day of action organized by the IG Metall union, he has just made a combative speech in front of around six hundred workers. Chairman of the local Bosch works council (an employee representation body), Ciccone has worked at the plant for nearly four decades, having started there at eighteen. The factory and its employees occupy a central place in his life. “Like a family,” he says. But, of late, the family has been ravaged by crisis, with the future of the factory now hanging in the balance.
Last year, Bosch announced its intention to close the factory, hitherto known as a production site for combustion engines, manufacturing fuel pumps and valves for diesel and gasoline engines, none of which will be used in electric cars. Twenty years ago, around 1,600 people worked on the site; today, only about 260 remain. But their fight against the planned closure has become a symbol of the wider conflict over Germany’s auto industry – and the future of its workers.
Bosch is currently the world’s largest supplier to the automotive industry, with most of its revenue coming from combustion engine technology. If it wants to maintain its position of strength, the company will have to transform itself. To this end, it plans, among other things, to relocate production that was previously located in Munich. A small part would go to Nuremberg, also in Germany, but the bulk would go to the Czech Republic or Brazil. This decision comes even as current employees lost 40 million euros in potential income between 2005 and 2017 as part of an agreement to secure their jobs. It’s a remarkable approach from a company whose website boasts of the “family unit” of the Munich factory.
Similar job cut plans exist for the company’s factories in Arnstadt in Thuringia and Bühl in Baden. In the first case, Bosch wants to completely stop production; in the latter, 1,000 of the current 3,700 jobs risk being lost.
The company justifies its plans by invoking the transition to e-mobility and the adjustment of the company structure that accompanies it. It announces its intention to make electric mobility its core business and to transform “CO2“free” mobility into an opportunity for growth. To this end, the company wants to close various production sites and use the restructuring to save money and cut jobs. The production of electric cars requires far fewer workers than those with combustion engines.
But for Miyase Erdogan, who like Ciccone has worked at the Munich factory for decades, it’s clear “it has nothing to do with electric cars”. Bosch has long wanted to relocate production to so-called low-wage countries, and IG Metall believes Bosch is misusing talk of the transition to e-mobility as just a pretext for its plans to close factories and find ways to increase profits. In short, Bosch doesn’t want to stop making money from combustion engines; he just wants to make them cheaper.
The workers at the Munich factory refuse to accept Bosch’s moves and demand that their jobs be saved. Among other things, they have developed an alternative proposal to secure both the site and the jobs in Munich. For them, it is clear that the sites producing combustion engines can be used to produce different and environmentally friendly products in the future. “We could all make it work, if the will was there,” insists Ciccone.
IG Metall launched the next phase of the dispute on November 26, 2021, with a day of solidarity actions targeting Bosch. In Munich, Arnstadt and Bühl, nearly 2,500 workers in total demonstrated for their future. The music echoed through the quiet residential area in eastern Munich where the Bosch factory is located, with red flags waving and combative speeches coming from a loudspeaker system. Almost the entire Munich workforce gathered for the rally in front of their factory, and workers from Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Bamberg and Blaibach also came out to support their colleagues. Everyone who was on the streets of Munich that morning knew it was about their whole future.
The actions of the Bosch Group reflect the broader restructuring of the automotive industry in Germany, which has been underway for some time. So far, this has come at the expense of employees. Tens of thousands of people have already been made redundant, Daimler plans to lay off up to twenty thousand workers, and supplier Continental is also closing many factories and planning to lay off up to thirteen thousand employees. The others are forced to compete for the few remaining jobs in e-mobility. “Transformation is underway,” says Ciccone. “And it’s only a matter of time before it’s the other plants’ turn.”
But the broad response to the call for a day of action also gives him hope:
Today we saw many Bosch factories and IG Metall workers show their solidarity with us. And I believe that this solidarity will grow. We must once again strengthen solidarity. Only then can we tell employers that they can’t do this to us. If there had only been 250 people here, we wouldn’t have had a chance. But, through solidarity with Bosch factories, IGM workers, environmental activists, and everyone else joining us right now, Bosch will find us a tough guy. It’s not just about 250 people. If you play with 250, you play with everyone.
Ciccone’s reference to the solidarity of environmental activists may at first seem surprising. But, in fact, a group of climate activists are also campaigning against the plant closure and were present at the day of action. After reading in the newspaper about the planned closure of the factory, they started going to the factory gate to talk to the people who work there. The workers were skeptical at first, but after a few weeks their doubts dissipated.
This rare but urgent alliance between climate activism and auto workers has led to the formation of a group called “Climate Protection and Class Struggle”. He argues that
the call for layoffs for climate protection drives a wedge between the climate movement and the more than 800,000 people who are directly employed in the automotive industry in Germany, and thus hinders the common fight against climate catastrophe. We cannot accept this.
Conversations outside the plant led to a joint petition accepted by climate groups and workers. He insists both that there should be no layoffs in the name of climate protection and that there should be a transition to ecological production. A large majority of workers signed the petition. Indeed, a complete transformation of the supplier and the wider automotive industry could not only offset job losses, but even create hundreds of thousands of new ones, although this should not simply mean a shift towards manufacture of electric cars.
Most importantly, unions, workers and climate activists have agreed that the change we need will depend on stronger alliances between climate and labor struggles. There is no doubt that the transformation of the automotive industry will continue. But it also raises the need for a fight for secure and quality jobs, to tackle the climate catastrophe that urgently demands the transformation of industry, and to ensure that this transformation does not benefit companies at detriment to the environment and workers.
The Munich example of an alliance between the climate movement and autoworkers provides an appropriate answer to the question of whether such a joint organization can succeed. Ciccone and those who showed up for the day of action certainly did not lose hope for the future of the factory: in his speech, he promised that he and his fellow fighters would chain themselves to the machines, if need was. For him, for the affected workers at Bosch sites and for many workers in the automotive industry’s production and supply chains, there is a long fight ahead, as there is for the climate movement.