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German Opel workers upset at GM; Union boss promises protests

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German Opel workers upset at GM; Union boss promises protests

NOVEMBER 4, 2009 06:01 CET

UPDATED: NOV. 4 15:35 CET

RUSSELSHEIM, Germany (Reuters) -- Bitterness, anger and disbelief mixed with betrayal and even resignation are just some of the emotions boiling within Germany following Tuesday's news that General Motors Co. will scrap its sale of Opel to Magna International Inc.

Opel labor leader Klaus Franz said workers would not go along with GM's "blackmail" of European governments and staff. Protests were planned across Europe on Thursday.

Workers were confused by the news.

"How can a company that is insolvent decide not to sell?" asked Anke Rezac, 35, speaking to Reuters outside Opel's headquarters and manufacturing plant here.

"I don't think that GM can hold on to Opel. They are just playing for time," said Rezac, who started work at Opel as a trainee at age 15.

Other workers directed venom at GM's American board for reversing course on plans to sell Opel, a decision that many fear will lead to thousands more job losses and plant closures than if Magna taken control.

Half of Opel's 50,000 workersf are based in Germany.

"I can only say that in GM's executive offices in America sit the biggest liars that the world has ever seen," one Opel worker raged in a German radio interview.

Even those workers who agreed with GM's decision said the company would have its work cut out to mop up the bad blood.

"If I were GM, I would also hold onto Opel," Opel worker Wolfgang Kruemmel, 64, told Reuters outside the Ruesselsheim plant.

"But all this back and forth has massively hurt confidence in our American partners. It's very important that GM takes steps to rebuild trust, otherwise the best workers will leave," Kruemmel said.

First yes, then no

After months of protracted negotiations with a consortium led by Canadian auto parts supplier Magna that finally led to GM approving a sale on Sept. 10 backed heavily by unions, the carmaker's board of directors reversed course and voted now simply to restructure Opel "in earnest" itself.

GM confirmed the decision made by its 13-member board after a meeting of directors on Tuesday in Detroit, saying that improving business conditions and the strategic importance of Opel to its operations had prompted the move.

Hours before GM's announcement, Opel's labor leaders agreed to contribute 265 million euros ($388 million) in annual savings as part of a much-needed restructuring plan, but that deal was contingent on a sale to Magna.

Labor leader Klaus Franz on Wednesday rescinded the deal.

Now workers are worried how GM will come up with the cash it needs to finance its European operations as a going concern.

"It's a black day for Opel," said one worker who asked not to be named, saying Magna's offer had been a workable solution.

Those working at European plants on GM's endangered list such as the Belgian site in Antwerp have long sniffed conspiracy ever since it first signed a letter of intent back at the end of May, suggesting Detroit was just using Magna to get an emergency taxpayer loan for Opel.

'Challenge to fight'

Said Opel's senior labor leader in Bochum, Rainer Einenkel: "Unfortunately my suspicion seems to been confirmed that the decision to sell Opel to Magna was connected with the elections later that month in Germany."

Chancellor Angela Merkel and key allies in her conservative party lobbied heavily in Magna's favor ahead of the parliamentary elections on Sept. 27, thinly veiling a threat that no German aid would flow should any other decision be taken.

Another Opel worker representative cursed when hearing the news and called GM's reversal a "challenge to fight," only to then add that there was a feeling among colleagues "the most favorable moment was already behind us and the danger grew with each day that passed" that the sale to Magna could collapse.

Although shocked by GM's decision, a union source conceded that somehow GM and Opel will have to sit down and work out a restructuring plan that labor believes could cost in Germany alone the closures of plants in Bochum, Eisenach and even Kaiserslautern.

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"How can a company that is insolvent decide not to sell?" asked Anke Rezac, 35, speaking to Reuters outside Opel's headquarters and manufacturing plant here.

Because they own it? If they were not forced by the bankruptcy courts to sell it, then they can do whatever they want with it, including backing out of a sale. If they would have a better chance at making money by keeping Opel, why would a court force them to sell it?

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