News | Europe - Socio-ecological Transformation - Changing Lanes Converting the Auto Industry: What Do Workers Think?

A conversation with Andrea Eckardt, Björn Harmening, Klaus Mertens, and Tom Adler


The auto industry is undergoing radical change and the current model of production could quite conceivably soon be facing a moment of crisis. Given this state of affairs, to what extent is there space for a socio-ecological conversion of the industry shaped by employees to emerge, and how are these kinds of questions being discussed within companies?

Andrea Eckardt is an advisor to the works council at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Salzgitter, of which Björn Harmening is an active member of the Salzgitter works council. Klaus Mertens is an advisor to the works council at the ZF plant in Schweinfurt. Tom Adler is a city councillor representing the political alliance SÖS LINKE PluS in Stuttgart. He has been an active member of the works council at the Daimler plant in Untertürkheim as well as part of the of the “Plakat-Gruppe”, an independent left-wing workers’ group at the same location. The interview was conducted by Antje Blöcker and first appeared in LuXemburg. Translation by Gráinne Toomey and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Teaser: The auto industry is undergoing radical change and the current model of production could quite conceivably soon be facing a moment of crisis. Given this state of affairs, to what extent is there space for a socio-ecological conversion of the industry shaped by employees to emerge, and how are these kinds of questions being discussed within companies?

In your industry, the pressure of large-scale change is nothing new: there have always been “agreements” regarding job security and future employment in your companies. Have conversions to more environmental or democratic models played a role in this area?

Andrea: Yes, there have been a number of transformational shifts at our VW location in Salzgitter, most recently as a result of the diesel scandal. Previously, we produced two-thirds diesel vehicles and one-third petrol; now it’s the other way around. We are currently restructuring to focus more on electromobility—this is not primarily because VW desires to do so, but because it will be threatened with punitive fines if it does not comply. This has enhanced the company’s environmental image, of course. In our IGM (trade union) caucus however, we have long been questioning what we will do when the fossil fuel economy comes to an end. We’ve been discussing alternatives since 1998.

Björn: Innovation Funds I and II, which were successfully negotiated during the VW wage-bargaining rounds in 2006 and 2009, definitely represent a win for democracy and worker participation. These funds are still in existence today, each with an annual budget of €20m. The works council is directly responsible for deciding which projects are chosen and the level of support they receive. Innovation Fund II is dedicated solely to innovation that operates outside of the automobile value chain, because previously ideas were always being rejected with the justification that they were too distant from VW’s core business. Above all, our motivation was to stimulate employment: we wanted to create new jobs by developing new products. Future projects that are currently in the developmental stage, such as the production of battery and fuel cells, have received critical start-up support from these funds. The committee within the general works council specially created to administer the funds also devotes a lot of time to environmental sustainability, for instance through the energy conservation programme implemented in VW plants, or improving the overall CO2 balance for the cars we produce.

What was the situation like at other companies? Have similar steps towards conversion also been taken in recent years?

Klaus: In principle, what were previously known as “programmes for the future” were until 2015 an extension of capitalist logic within an intensely competitive market and a retention of the social partnership. From 2015 onwards, there was increased focus on changing the drive train—not in terms of an industry-wide conversion, however, but rather on how the company could ready itself for future challenges. At VW, the works council was the sole voice linking these transformations to the climate crisis, and emphasizing that replacing an SUV’s internal combustion engine with an electric motor would not be sufficient. Unfortunately, this is yet to have much of an impact on daily operations. Only a small section of our workforce sees these changes as part of a larger mobility transition. In contrast, there is a widespread desire among employees to participate in operational management at company level.

Tom: I take a similar view. The job security and “future employment security” programmes of the last 25 years exist within a context of extortion and threats of relocation facilitated by the corporation. Socio-ecological and democratic ideas play no role at all in such a context. It’s also difficult to maintain a combative and progressive agenda during these defensive battles is also difficult when there’s little external social pressure to tap into. Things are different today because of the new climate movement. But back then, too, our employees demonstrated a high level of mobilization in disputes, which trade unions could have been utilized in other ways. Instead, every time the future was “secured”, works councils saw this as a further validation of their approach and carried on with a “business as usual” attitude.

Did others not pursue alternative approaches, and if so, why were they not implemented?

Tom: As late as 1990, at their conference “The Car, the Environment and Traffic”, IG Metal occupied a very different position, which saw them take up the early environmental movement’s criticism of car companies. At Daimler, this was pushed by individual leftists and working groups, and was thus a minority view amongst the company’s employees. But there were many links to non-parliamentary political movements, and an internationalist self-image. The conflicts at Lucas Aerospace in the UK and at LIP in France also gave impetus to local efforts, as did the “alternative production” work groups of the North German shipyards. Attempts were made to politicize and link up internal conflicts as well as to attack power relations within the company and its managerial prerogative. The six-week strike in 1984 aimed at introducing a 35-hour working week certainly contributed to this climate. The boardroom was well aware that the point where environmental and worker movements find common ground is where the rubber meets the road. Nothing came of these circumstances because even though these views found expression in IG Metall’s 1990 policy paper “The Car, the Environment, and Traffic” or in the action programme “Work and Technology”, they were still only held by a minority within the company as a whole. Nothing developed beyond a couple of seminars for on-site union reps. With growing extortion offensives against workers, the radicalizing of competition, the shift within union policy away from the development of countervailing forces, and the advent of “concession bargaining”, alternative approaches were completely stifled.

Nevertheless, were or are there concrete proposals or projects engaged with the idea of industry-wide conversion? If so, how did these come about?

Andrea: Here at the Salzgitter plant there was an intense discussion about the construction of a thermal heating and power station, an idea first proposed by IG Metall in 1995. It took 13 years for it to be commissioned. The constant message coming from the board had been that “heating has nothing to do with the automobile industry”. But to us it was clear that we needed to expand beyond the company’s core automotive sector activity, so we worked tirelessly to achieve a change in awareness among union representatives and works council members as well as the board. One milestone that sticks out is a feasibility study that we fought for as part of a 2006 collective agreement. Our plant was initially very successful and became known as a model project in Germany and abroad. This was helped by the attractive jobs on offer that emphasized a less pressurized work environment, and saw many employees working at what was known as “reduced capacity”. In cooperation with energy provider Lichtblick we developed a flagship project for environmental energy production. Although the project’s failure can be traced to the huge resistance and constantly high development costs that it faced, the lack of a coherent distribution strategy also played a role. We certainly learnt a lot from this experience, not least that just because an idea has merit does not mean that it is viable or feasible—at least not under current capitalist conditions.

Klaus: We last debated the issue of conversion during the 2008/09 crisis. Precise and tangible ideas were developed in workshops with executives. For instance, we had to visualize physical pieces of technology such as a vibration decoupling system and then think about where it might be needed. There was even a heated discussion about this potentially being used as a damper for a walking frame. I remember this particularly well because it showed how ideas can really travel when they’re allowed room to breathe. Unfortunately, none of these ideas came to fruition. The swift economic recovery and a decade of high-capacity operations meant that things quickly returned to normal.

Tom: Perhaps the most far-reaching effort achieved by us at the Untertürkheim Daimler plant was the intervention by the Plakat-Gruppe, right as a new round of investment cycle in a transfer machine line was going through the approval process. The plant management envisaged a model that would allow for a quantitative increase in production and would only be useful for a single purpose. We started a discussion about what else this machine line could produce alongside axles, crankcases and cylinder heads for automobiles. We also developed an alternative model which entailed flexible universal machinery that could be used at both production and assembly stations. Such a model would have kept open the option of moving away from automobile production in future. Over the course of several months, we encouraged workplace discussion of the concept and distributed tens of thousands of leaflets on the topic. The company was forced to address it at factory meetings and counter it with their own leaflet campaign. Because our concept fulfilled the interests and requirements of employees, it was not viewed as unrealistic nonsense on the factory floor. Unfortunately, the critical factor for the initiative’s success simply was not there: the majority of the works council did not want to get involved in the investment decisions of the corporation. In addition, the local IG Metall representatives did not take the concept on board, despite the fact that extensive discussions evaluating the technology involved and the end product had taken place.

How do things stand in the current period of transition we find ourselves in—is there a sense that debates about industry conversion and the production of alternative products are experiencing an upswing in momentum?

Klaus: Yes, the debate is slowly gathering pace, since the sustainability of the automotive industry in Europe as a whole is under scrutiny. A downward overall trend of in production quantity, the global spread of local-for-local manufacturing, and the shift to digitization and automation all pose a threat to employment and make it necessary to consider alternative production options, even if only cautiously. Older workers that remember the discussions in the 1980s about a conversion to arms production are a driving force in this regard. These discussions are important because only new products can prevent a fall in employment—at least, as long as other issues such as shorter working hours and an unconditional basic income remain unaddressed. But we’re not there yet, either on an operational or a union level.

Tom: Unresolved issues from the past are indeed catching up with us. After all, the capitalist transformation of the economy did not simply happen upon us in 2019, but is rather an ongoing process. Still, such upheavals have little to do with the changes occurring with regards to drive technology. Current reductions in staff numbers are the result of a huge increase in productivity that has occurred over a number of years through the creation of new forms of enterprise, through the reduction of vertical integration, through the relocation of production, through rationalization. Trade union responses to such changes appear toothless, and find themselves caught between making appeals to companies and politicians. Anyone who has spent the last two decades aligning themselves with the notion that being based in Germany provides a crucial competitive edge is going to struggle to be able to take impromptu action when attacks intensify. A lot of hard work lies ahead—particularly for the small number of employees who know that there is no way of avoiding the conversion debate. In light of attacks by companies on jobs and working standards and the urgent need for a new transport movement, we have no other choice.

Björn: I also see a long road ahead. Among employees there is a lot of disagreement about whether electromobility is the right approach. On social media there are a lot of superficial debates, some of which are influenced by Alternative for Germany (AfD)—even amongst VW employees. It is important that we continue to counter these with facts. Being prepared for change is closely tied up with working conditions. In battery cell production, for instance, there’s a joint venture currently being pursued with Swedish start-up Northvolt, meaning that it is not an operation run solely by VW. Discussions around how employee transfer should take place with respect to this project are robust, to say the least. The company naively wants to simply have workers’ VW contracts terminated and then have them re-hired by the new entity. In contrast, we say that our colleagues must remain employed by VW and retain their accompanying work agreements and pension—only once these things have been guaranteed will the workers become more interested in the project and be willing to move along with it.

How can discussions around the internal democratization of company management be fostered? What part do stakeholders such as union representatives and members of works councils have to play in such debates?

Klaus: To start with, it’s important to facilitate the involvement of all employee groups in the process of brainstorming ideas for the future of production. Given the current climate, this would already represent a huge leap forward. This can only be initiated by IG Metall and the works councils, however, because management isn’t interested in starting a discussion about conversion.

Andrea: At the Salzgitter plant, job security is our current priority, a particularly in the diesel sector, which will be greatly affected by the transformation of the industry. Historically, the old leftist approach has been that we and the workers jointly decide which products should be manufactured in the plant and in what quantity. Nowadays, however, everyone has the chance to contribute their own product ideas via Innovation Fund II and potentially implement them as well. Ultimately, most ideas come from individual departments and developmental engineers, unsurprising given that innovation is a core focus of their job. Above all, the main goal is to develop a marketable product for either VW, an employee’s own independent company, or for a third party. This is of course very different to the “future workshops” which used to take place on a regular basis. We need to reconnect with these kinds of approaches.

On the regional level, how can operational initiatives for converting the nature of the industry’s production be connected to initiatives that seek to bring about fundamental change in the transport sector?

Klaus: In Schweinfurt we are proposing the idea of a regional transformation council that would bring together all of the relevant stakeholders from the eastern part of Lower Franconia. The success of such initiatives is dependent on participants’ awareness and willingness to embrace change, however. At the moment the “change agents” seem to be greatly outnumbered by masters of repression. With around 30,000 people employed, the region is the industrial centre of Franconia and the home of the roller bearing industry, whose main customer is the automobile industry. It’s also a very rural area. Here we fight the dismantling of railway lines with the same energy that we dedicated to the struggle to keep railway damper production in the region. My ideal scenario would be to actively take advantage of the coming transport movement in the region and see it as an opportunity to work with local bicycle firms and suppliers also undergoing a similar transformation, within the framework of the state garden show to be held in 2026, for instance.

Andrea: Discussions around other forms of transport such as train and bus are mostly taking place in Wolfsburg und Braunschweig, where the infrastructure set-up is different. These kinds of solutions aren’t really an option for a rural industrial region such as ours. The decarbonization of the steel sector at Salzgitter AG is at the forefront of local discussions, however, alongside the ongoing resistance to the use of the former Konrad mine as a disposal site. These issues would provide a solid impetus for the reactivation of the regional IGM roundtables. Alternative methods of renewable energy production are also a popular subject of conversation; this issue is currently set to most greatly impact the supplier companies threatened with closure because their job security agreements are set to expire.

Tom: In my opinion, companies and unions are not well prepared for what is to come. I have yet to see any operational initiatives for conversion that could be aligned with new transport movement initiatives. There have been initial attempts to re-open these discussions in left-wing and environmentally oriented union networks again. Organized resistance to staff reduction efforts is key here. Since there is no way that forthcoming shifts in transport will not also entail a significant reduction in vehicle production, we need to provide employees with alternatives that are feasible and, ideally, also attractive. Local governance will play a critical role in this context: councils need to stop underfunding public services and expand social infrastructure. There is huge potential for expanded employment in schools, the care sector, public transport, and in the construction of community housing. The creative potential of tens of thousands of engineers, technicians, and mechanics that is currently tied to producing detrimental crap such as SUVs in car companies could instead be harnessed for use in these areas instead.