* GM says restructuring plan for Germany must be done by Feb
* First ever time that management has named timeframe
* Warns failure would mean Bochum plant closed in Jan 2015
* German union says it cannot accept wage freeze demand
By Christiaan Hetzner and Andreas Cremer
FRANKFURT/BERLIN, Jan 22 General Motors
said on Tuesday it may close a German factory at its Opel
subsidiary earlier than proposed adding restructuring talks with
unions must be wrapped up by February, as the U.S. carmaker
seeks deep cuts to save its ailing brand.
Raising the pressure on its more than 20,000 workers in
Germany, GM Vice Chairman Stephen Girsky said the company would
carry out its original plan to shut production down at the
northwestern Bochum plant as soon as the current contract
permits, should talks collapse.
"I have asked the Opel management and labour to reach a
solution in February. Our Germany Plan must then be finalised,"
GM Vice Chairman Stephen Girsky told employees on Tuesday in a
letter obtained by Reuters.
"The (current) contract expires at the end of 2014.
Production of the Zafira in Bochum would then end and all
assembly cease as of Jan. 1, 2015," Girsky wrote in the letter,
which was verified by General Motors.
It is the first time the company has issued a specific
timeframe for a deal in negotiations between Opel management and
its Germany workforce. The talks, which have dragged on since
last June, were agreed on the basis that management wanted to
close Bochum when the current lifecycle of the Zafira Tourer MPV
ends - largely considered to be towards the end of 2016.
GM's European operation, which consists mainly of Opel and
UK-based Vauxhall following the sale of Saab to Spyker in 2010,
has racked up around $16 billion in losses since 2000 owing to
uncompetitive models, a sickly brand image and more recently a
sharp plunge in the European car market.
This has prompted analysts to call for Opel to be sold
almost at any cost and triggered speculation that GM is working
behind the scenes to offload Opel onto its French partner PSA
Peugeot Citroen, which is itself struggling to find
sufficient economies of scale to stay afloat.
The Opel works council in Germany and IG Metall trade union
negotiator said in response to Girsky: "The threat to cease all
production in Bochum at the start of 2015 is unacceptable."
A spokesman for Opel said it was for the workforce to decide
whether they would take up an offer tabled by management to
maintain production past 2014. GM is demanding that Opel staff
wages in Germany be frozen until the unit returns to profit.
"Ahead of today's negotiations in Bochum, the first since
December's announcement, Steve Girsky appealed to staff to join
company efforts in guaranteeing that Bochum has a future after
2016, even if it is not with Opel," the spokesman said.
Girsky said management would not budge from its plans to
close Bochum and cut some 3,000 jobs there, regardless of
workforce and union proposals to build the next-generation Mokka
subcompact SUV at the plant, which sits astride an abandoned
coal mine in an economically depressed area in northwestern
"The situation in the entire European (car) market is still
catastrophic," Girsky wrote in the letter. "That's a difficult
precondition for forthcoming negotiations" with German staff.
GM forecast Opel will have made between $1.5 billion and
$1.8 billion in losses last year, with only a slight improvement
expected for this one. Detroit has pushed back the breakeven
point, initially expected two years ago, to the middle of the
IG Metall said it could not agree to GM's freezing wages for
a sustained period of time, since this would grant preferential
treatment to one company over all the other goods manufacturers
in Germany that are bound by industry-wide wage agreements.
"For this reason IG Metall cannot and will not ever agree to
that," they wrote in the statement.
IG Metall has long warned that GM's rounds of restructuring
at Opel only serve to further weaken the ailing subsidiary and
widen the already substantial gap between it and Volkswagen
VW only once resorted to large scale job cuts in Germany
back in 2006 and its domestic staff has almost returned to the
previous size of roughly 100,000 workers as its strong brand and
diversified model line-up help it take share from competitors
like Opel and Peugeot.