Closure fears tarnish Opel plants' golden anniversary

Wed Mar 28, 2012 4:52am EDT
 
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By Tom Kaeckenhoff and Ethan Bilby

BOCHUM, Germany/ELLESMERE PORT, England (Reuters) - A golden anniversary is usually cause for celebration, but at General Motors' (GM.N: Quote) car plants at Bochum in western Germany and Ellesmere Port in northwest England, the talk is of closure, not their openings in 1962.

Economic weakness across much of Europe has hit car sales, forcing the sector to address a capacity overhang. GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson estimates that manufacturers have 10 plants too many across the continent.

Though Opel, GM's European unit, has said none of its plants will go before the end of 2014, most expect the 50-year-old factory at Bochum and the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port, the company's only remaining car plant in Britain, will be earmarked for closure.

Opel's supervisory board meets on Wednesday, and thousands of employees and thousands more who depend on the plants for at least some of their business fear their futures could be decided in the course of the discussions at the company's Ruesselsheim headquarters near Franfkurt.

Bochum, once home to a thriving coal and steel industry in the heart of the Ruhr basin, underwent painful restructuring as the mines shut between 1960 and 1980. More recently, phone maker Nokia closed a factory in 2008, preferring low-cost Romania. Unemployment in the city stood at 10 percent in February, compared with a national average of 7.4 percent.

"Opel is the pulse generator for the local economy," said Ernst Ulrich Doeren, managing partner of Ernst Doeren GmbH & Co KG, which packages tires for Opel and other carmakers and employs about 60 workers in Bochum. "Thousands of jobs would be lost at one stroke."

It would be at least 20,000, according to Joerg Linden, spokesman for the Bochum-based IHK chambers of commerce, including the 3,100 at the plant itself, and the rest at suppliers, transporters and the like.

"You can turn off the lights in Bochum if the factory is shut down," said Andreas Graf Praschma, a former spokesman for Opel's Bochum operations, who worked for the carmaker during major strikes in 2004 against the American owners' restructuring plans.   Continued...

 
A flag is pictured in front of the Opel plant in Bochum March 23, 2012. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender