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Opel workers protest threatened closure of Belgian factory

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Opel workers protest threatened closure of Belgian factory

SEPTEMBER 23, 2009 15:01 CET

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) -- Thousands of Opel workers and union leaders from across Europe protested on Wednesday against the threatened closure of the carmaker's plant in Belgium.

Canadian automotive supplier Magna International Inc. and its Russian partner, Sberbank, have agreed to buy a majority stake in Opel, the European arm of General Motors Co. The parties are in talks to work out the final details.

They plan to cut about 10,500 jobs from an Opel work force of 50,000, half of whom work in Germany.

"We're not prepared to accept plant closures anywhere in Europe," said John Fetherston, union representative for Ellesmere Port, one of two Opel plants in Britain.

Estimates on the numbers present varied from 2,500 to 5,000. More than 20 coach-loads of workers arrived from Germany. Spanish and British union officials were also present.

"We are here to show our solidarity with our Antwerp colleagues. If we do not fight it could be Bochum, Luton or Zaragoza tomorrow," Peter Scherrer, general secretary of the European Metalworkers' Federation, told the crowd.

Magna has said that it will keep all four German factories open and could close the Antwerp plant in Belgium that is losing production of the Astra hatchback.

The European Commission issued a statement on Wednesday repeating that it would examine whether Germany has tied 4.5 billion euros ($6.66 billion) in promised state aid to the preservation of plants there.

Any plant closure is likely to be based solely on commercial considerations, although there is no consensus on these.

Conflicting views

Opel Chairman Carl-Peter Forster has rebutted a report in German magazine Der Spiegel that said Antwerp is more profitable than its rival site in Bochum, Germany.

Kris Peeters, the premier of the Flanders region, told the Flemish parliament on Tuesday that Opel's plant in Antwerp was indeed cheaper if adjustments were made to take into account the level of production.

Opel union boss Klaus Franz told Reuters he hoped negotiations on staffing levels and productivity could wrap up quickly, reiterating labor's offer to chop 265 million euros each year from structural costs.

"We all see the need for restructuring and capacity adjustments, but every job has a face that goes along with it and we want to do this in a socially acceptable way -- no plant closures and no forced layoffs," he said. "Opel's labor appeals to each European country not to encumber the talks with nationalistic interests.

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