UAW chief tells Opel workers vote again, keep German plant open

DETROIT, April 23 Wed Apr 24, 2013 2:16am IST

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DETROIT, April 23 (Reuters) - The head of the United Auto Workers union suggested German hourly workers at a General Motors Co plant should accept a deal they previously rejected in order to keep their jobs.

UAW President Bob King, who is a member of Opel's supervisory board, said on Tuesday that workers at GM's Opel plant in Bochum, Germany should ask to vote again on the restructuring deal they rejected last month that would have kept the plant open through the end of 2016 and retained 1,200 of the more than 3,000 employees.

The 50-year-old plant is now scheduled to close by the end of 2014, when Opel will end production of Zafira MPVs. The plant closure is part of management's strategy to achieve profitability in 2015 after what will be by then 15 straight years of losses for GM in Europe.

"I would really hate to see that plant closed when so much effort was put in by IG Metall and the works council to save it," King said in a telephone interview.

A revote, while rare, has been done before in the United States, he said. In 2008, workers at a former Ford Motor Co glass plant petitioned for a revote, while in 1999 union leaders in the Flat Rock, Michigan assembly plant then run by Ford and Mazda Motor Corp suggested a second vote.

"I'm hoping if I talk about how that's one of the things that happened in the U.S., that maybe the (Bochum) workers will do that," King said. "I don't know if that's possible, but at least that would open up a door of opportunity for people to talk."

GM officials said the workers had voted and the U.S. automaker was now focused on supporting the development agency 'Bochum Prospects 2022,' an initiative to attract new companies to the economically depressed Ruhr region of northwest Germany where the plant is located.

"We gave the employee a clear choice," spokesman Harald Hamprecht said in an email. "We respect the outcome. The Opel supervisory board acted accordingly and we are moving on."

GM previously said no further negotiations on the labor deal would take place. The management board at GM's money-losing Opel unit approved the closing of the Bochum plant last week.

King said it was up to union leaders in Germany to ask for a revote. He declined to say whether he had discussed the idea with the German union IG Metall.

King emphasized that keeping the plant open would allow workers the opportunity to regain jobs later when the struggling European economy improves.

The UAW took a similar approach at GM's Spring Hill, Tennessee plant, where vehicle assembly ended in November 2009 but engine and stamping operations continued. In November 2011, the U.S. union reached a new labor deal with GM that included resumption of vehicle assembly at the plant in the third quarter of last year.

Workers in Bochum had the same opportunity and perhaps didn't understand or it was not explained well enough, King said.

Labor leaders in Bochum, a former coal mining town, led opposition against a compromise deal, betting GM would not take the unusual and costly step of shifting production and tooling of the Zafira prior to 2017.

King, who was appointed by IG Metall to Opel's supervisory board in March 2012 and is up for reelection for a four-year term, said GM has not announced to which plant the Bochum production work will be shifted. He also said there has been discussions about shifting more production work to European plants, but declined to discuss further.

King is trying to win the support of IG Metall for the UAW's efforts to organize the U.S. plants of German automakers Volkswagen and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz. He has said organizing the U.S. plants owned by foreign automakers is critical to the UAW's future success.

King said the UAW's relationship with IG Metall was strong. Last month, IG Metall President Berthold Huber said in a letter that the hourly workers at VW's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, should pick the UAW to represent them.

"UAW doesn't have a better advocate than Berthold Huber," said King, who added there were no new developments in the union's efforts to organize workers at the VW plant.

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