Opel losses mount, GM seeks union-backed cuts

Opel losses mount, GM seeks union-backed cuts
Ben Klayman
and Christiaan Hetzner
Automotive News | February 8, 2012 – 2:40 pm EST
UPDATED: 2/8/12 3:50 pm ET

DETROIT/FRANKFURT (Reuters) — General Motors Co. will report a loss of more than $300 million at its troubled Opel unit next week, as the U.S. automaker races to cut costs that can win the backing of its German union, people familiar with the situation said.

Wall Street wants a fast restructuring to slash costs, while the German union, IG Metall, has refused to consider immediate plant closures or job losses.

As GM executives move ahead with a 100-day plan, they have pulled back from hard-line options such as bankruptcy, said sources close to management and German labor, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of discussions.

IG Metall’s Opel contract, which covers 20,000 hourly workers, runs through 2014. GM has not asked to reopen that deal, the sources said. Instead the focus has been on steps such as streamlining warehouse operations and cutting engineering costs.

“Plant closings and reopening the labor deal, there are no decisions on any of that,” said one of the sources familiar with GM’s strategy.

GM has not commented on its talks with IG Metall, but has repeatedly said management and labor representatives were working together to make the unit profitable. Opel CEO Karl-Friedrich Stracke said in a letter to employees today that no decisions have been made to close plants, shift vehicle production or cut jobs.

Pressure is mounting on GM, with its European business expected to report a fourth-quarter loss that is wider than the previous quarter.

“If within the next six months there’s not demonstrable change at Opel, then investors are going to be asking serious questions about leadership,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said.

Restoring Opel to profitability would address one of the biggest uncertainties left untouched by the Obama administration’s $50 billion taxpayer-funded bailout in 2009.

In November, GM CEO Dan Akerson signaled his growing impatience with Opel by naming Vice Chairman Steve Girsky to head its board. Girsky has been joined by Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann, International Operations head Tim Lee and global product chief Mary Barra.

In another sign GM is working closely with its unions, IG Metall will name UAW President Bob King to the Opel board next month, the sources said.

Union officials meet

King is trying to win the support of IG Metall for the UAW’s efforts to organize the U.S. plants of German automakers and he would probably not endorse any quick plant closures in Europe, one of the sources said.

In fact, Opel union chief Wolfgang Schaefer-Klug was in Detroit meeting with King on Monday, the sources said.

When GM reports fourth-quarter results on Feb. 16, GM Europe’s loss will be larger than the $292 million loss of the prior quarter, the sources said. However, it will be lower than the $568 million loss of the fourth quarter of 2010.

GM, which lost $580 million in Europe through the first nine months of 2011, is not alone as it struggles there. U.S. rival Ford Motor Co.’s losses in Europe nearly quadrupled in its most recent quarter.

“Purely from a manufacturing point of view, Opel is not in bad shape versus its European competitors right now, and I don’t see any need at all for the company resorting in a panic to measures like taking out an entire plant,” LMC Automotive analyst Arthur Maher said.

Instead, Opel’s Stracke has a 100-day plan that could include asking the union to postpone wage increases, the sources said.

GM may still seek to close assembly plants in Bochum, Germany, and Ellesmere Port, England, but that is not part of the current plan, sources said. A regional bankruptcy for Opel, an option some analysts had raised, also is not under consideration.

Project accelerate

Meanwhile, GM executives are looking everywhere to cut costs and have been working with advisers Alix Partners. One plan dubbed “Project Accelerate” is meant to save money on a specific vehicle line, the sources said.

“Labor is small piece of this restructuring,” the source familiar with GM’s strategy said.

But GM is also pressing the union to deliver on a commitment for 177 million euros ($234.60 million) in annual cost savings, the sources said.

The union is willing to work with GM to make Opel profitable, but any concessions would have to be accompanied by GM agreeing to shift work to Opel plants or exporting more Opel vehicles outside Europe, the sources said.

However, Morgan Stanley’s Jonas called the need to reopen the Opel labor deal obvious, adding that shifting production of vehicles from South Korea to Europe was not enough.

“Making Daewoo-based Chevrolets in Germany, one of the highest cost countries in the world, is not going to cut it,” he said.

Union leaders at Ellesmere Port said GM has not talked with them about a shutdown. “No one’s come to close,” said John Cooper, one of the plant’s top union representatives.

In the meantime, the GM executives who joined Opel’s board, including Girsky, have traveled to Europe regularly with the idea of moving relationships in Germany away from the “us versus them” mentality of the past, the sources said.

“This is about building bridges,” the source familiar with GM strategy said. “Opel is not this island by itself.”

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