German Labor Mixed on Chrysler: Solidarity vs Self-Interest

by Josee Valcourt

Earlier this month, a German labor official sent a mass e-mail to Chrysler union members in the United States and Canada. His message: German union workers oppose the sale of Chrysler and stand ready to fight side-by-side with their U.S. counterparts to defend jobs.

“Strike is the strongest weapon we have. Only by fighting together can we defend our jobs,” wrote Volker Kraft, a shop council member at DaimlerChrysler’s Mercedes operation in Untertürkheim, Germany. “Our solidarity belongs to you, the workers and employees of Chrysler and your struggle for your jobs. “

The e-mail obtained by The Detroit News sheds light on a hard-line attitude shared by some DaimlerChrysler union members in Germany as events leading to a possible sale of Chrysler unfold. But Kraft’s viewpoint is far from universal in Germany, where labor leaders hold disparate views on the question of Chrysler future. In the end, solidarity could take a backseat to self-interest.

Erich Klemm, the powerful head of IG Metall and a vice chairman of DaimlerChrysler AG’s supervisory board, said in February the decision to explore the sale of Chrysler was necessary to safeguard DaimlerChrysler.

Other powerful labor leaders on DaimlerChrysler supervisory have taken a carefully nuanced position. They appear ready to support the sale of Chrysler as long as they are convinced the buyer isn’t planning massive job cuts or a breakup of the company.

Earlier this month, leaders from DaimlerChrysler’s unions in Germany, the United States and Canada met for a dinner in Berlin on the eve of the automaker’s annual shareholders meeting. The leaders discussed creating a common strategy to deal with the possible sale of Chrysler.

All sides agreed “we would not support a private equity group, or a combination of a private equity group and corporation, that would seek the destruction of our jobs,” said Bob Chernecki, an assistant to Canadian Auto Worker’s President Basil “Buzz” Hargrove who attended the dinner.

Labor has big voice

German labor leaders—who represent half the seats on DaimlerChrysler’s governing supervisory board—could ultimately play a huge role in what happens to Chrysler. DaimlerChrysler Chairman Dieter Zetsche will have to carefully consider labor’s reaction before settling on a buyer for Chrysler.

It’s unlikely, however, that union leaders like Kraft will have much of a say in the process. Hargrove said he received Kraft’s e-mail but didn’t put much stock in it. “It represents one person’s thinking,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a great sentiment of concern among IG Metall members about Chrysler. “

That’s at least partly true. While some rank-and-file German workers have expressed support for their union brethren at Chrysler, others blame the losses at Chrysler for the heavy layoffs at Mercedes in recent years and say it’s time to cut ties.

A checkered past

Futhermore, Kraft appears to be a controversial figure in Germany. Klemm’s assistant, Silke Ernst, said IG Metall is aware of Kraft’s message to Chrysler employees and union leaders, but described him as a left-wing radical. “Mr. Kraft does not speak for any majority of Mercedes workers,” Ernst said in an e-mail.

She said Kraft was excluded from IG Metall in 2003 “because of doing harm to the union. He just speaks for some supporters of a small group that still fights for Marxism and Leninism.”

Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said Kraft’s message indicates that “a kernel of what he’s saying has broader support among workers and unions in Germany,” Shaiken said.

Roger Kerson, a spokesman for the UAW, said he was unaware of Kraft’s e-mail. The CAW’s Hargrove said Kraft’s message is among several he’s read from German union members. One, Hargrove said, suggested that Chrysler workers consider accepting Kirk Kerkorian’s $4.5 billion cash bid for Chrysler that offers union members equity in the company.

Gregg Shotwell, a member of the splinter UAW group called Soldiers of Solidarity said he regularly hears from different unions across the globe who convey their solidarity, particularly when there’s turmoil among employers. “When we were going through the Delphi struggle, we were getting a lot messages that said, ‘We support you,’” he said.

In his e-mail, Kraft lambastes the German press, which “portrays Chrysler as a company in need of recapitalization.” Kraft also invites American and Canadian union members to participate in the fifth International Automotive Workers Counsel next month. That event would be an opportunity for union workers to “come together, share our experiences and establish strong links.”

By then, however, a buyer may already be chosen for Chrysler.

You can reach Josee Valcourt at (313) 222-2575 or

Detroit News, April 16, 2007