German engineering workers protest job cuts in Berlin

Employees of the MAN Diesel & Turbo plant in Berlin demonstrated Monday in defence of their jobs. Demonstrations took place at the same time at the company’s other locations in Augsburg, Oberhausen and Hamburg.

The workers were protesting the planned elimination of 1,400 jobs across all locations, part of management’s restructuring programme, “Basecamp 3000+.”

The threatened job cuts came as a surprise to the workers in Berlin because the plant is overworked and has established a customer base with highly-qualified engineering and finishing employees over recent decades.

“We are extremely angry,” Markus told the WSWS. He was unsettled by the fact that workers had no idea what future developments would be. “It is a real slap in the face for us that they want to throw us all out. But we will fight to the last man, as they say. We want to defend our jobs and ensure that nobody has to go.”

Kevin, Markus’ colleague, said, “We haven’t heard any details from management, just that 317 jobs are to be cut here. Production is allegedly to be shifted abroad. We are first of all fighting for our jobs here in Berlin, for our families. The elimination of 61 percent of the jobs at the Berlin plant means that operations will be wound up here in the medium term.

“The worst of it is that it always affects ordinary people. It is always forgotten that it is those who operate the machines who bring in the money, and despite that it is always us who have to bear the burden of a crisis.”

Markus focused in particular on the fate of contract workers or pipe fitters and metal workers in the plant, who work on short-term contracts, “They will be affected first. Short-term contracts are a modern form of slavery. Of course, the corporations can do business very flexibly with that, they hire when necessary and let go when demand drops. But nobody has a future with that, it is impossible to build a life.”

Claudia, who also works in the MAN plant in Berlin, had already read a report about MAN on the WSWS. “We know your web site, and we read the article on MAN Turbo & Diesel. I thought it was great, it was an entirely different point of view. There’s certainly something in the idea that each location is being played off against each other, but we don’t really fully understand how that takes place.”

Talks are to begin in Augsburg on Nov. 29. The IG Metall trade union and works council have remained silent, failing to inform workers about the proposal they intend to make to management. Based on the statements by works council chair René Marx at the rally on Monday, the union intends to present a better business plan to management, according to which job cuts will only be a “last resort.”

What this means in practice is shown by the “future pact” agreed at MAN’s owner, Volkswagen, between the IG Metall, works council, VW management and the state of Lower Saxony. According to the agreement, VW will cut 30,000 jobs, including 7,000 contract workers, whose contracts will not be extended. Contract workers who have been urged to join the IG Metall by the union experienced how hollow the promises of the unions are.

There are similar short-term contract workers at MAN’s Berlin plant. Stefan, a young worker, said, “At MAN Turbo & Diesel, I did my apprenticeship and then got a one-year contract. Now I will be laid off, what kind of Christmas will this be?” He added that he has no prospect of finding comparable work in Berlin. “The contract positions are generally offered at the minimum wage of €8.50 per hour. On that pay it will be difficult to establish a family and build for the future.”

A group of workers spoke with pride about the cooperation between the different plants, “Our group works with the factory in Hamburg, and together we have developed a machine. Hamburg is being hit even harder, because there, all of the production is being eliminated. We think it is very bad that production is being outsourced. We have developed the product so intensively over the past 20 years that it is going very well. It is just impossible that, after we developed everything, the finished product is taken away from us.”

The reduction of the Berlin plant to merely finishing components amounts to a virtual shutdown, one of the workers noted. “Then we will only get work if Oberhausen and Augsburg are at full capacity,” he said.

Claudia stated, “Right now we are experiencing quite a strong period of turmoil, everything is changing and I’m really wondering where it will all lead. The future looks bleak. It will be difficult to find a new position, particularly in mechanical engineering. We don’t have much industry in Berlin any more. Perhaps it is necessary to take an entirely different orientation.”

Markus referred to the outsourcing plans of management and noted that he along with many of his colleagues felt close ties to their work and the products they make. “The idea of outsourcing a product like the steam turbine to India makes no sense. What we produce here, the entire factory, was built up over a century by workers, there is so much expertise here, we will not allow it to be simply taken away. That is thievery, it cannot be tolerated.”

The feeling of having been robbed and that workers had a right to a job was shared by many of the demonstrators.

Markus went on, “Of course we live under capitalism, where the right exists for the private ownership of these factories. But seen purely morally, that is not right. The products ought to be the intellectual property of the people who work in the factories. Karl Marx said that property rights should be transferred to the people who do the work, but this doesn’t help us very much in our current situation. We can’t establish the next international over the coming three months.”

Asked about the trade policy of the new US president, Donald Trump, there were different reactions. One worker said, “I think something like that is good for us workers.” Another criticised Trump’s policies, “The idea that companies should stay in their own country is not misguided, but if one considers that economic protectionism can also have a negative impact, particularly for mechanical engineering which is so dependent on exports, then it could be dangerous.”

A discussion developed about how trade war in the 1930s led to the Second World War. Markus said of this, “I can hardly imagine that in this market economy system such trade barriers can be built without many people suffering as a result. One would actually need a world government with a super computer to calculate all trade.”

Trade and the distribution of goods had to be calculated as optimally as possible and organised internationally, he said. “Trade war will take us all to a place where I do not want under any circumstances to be. That is why I am deeply concerned about something like that happening. I don’t need absolute free trade, but I think that the unilateral introduction of tariffs leads us to disaster.”

Responding to the question of whether they saw a prospect for workers to unite internationally, Kevin answered, “The corporations fear that, because the broad masses are the majority like us who work. If they would unite, those at the top would begin to feel the heat.”