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Rage against GM over 10,000 planned job cuts at Opel

Berlin — Angry German workers on Thursday protested General Motors’ shock refusal to sell its European unit Opel and its plans to cut 10,000 jobs, moves slammed as a slap in the face for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Around 10,000 workers demonstrated at Ruesselsheim near Frankfurt, Opel’s biggest German factory, while 3,000 downed tools at Bochum, another 3,000 at Kaiserslautern and around 600 at Eisenach.

GM wants to slash costs by 30 percent at Opel, which would mean the elimination of about one-fifth a workforce of around 50,000, GM vice president John Smith told a telephone news conference.

"Opel — the big piss-take," screamed the front-page headline of the mass-selling Bild newspaper. "The Americans duped everyone."

GM even warned employees and unions that it could still allow Opel to flounder if the workforce upholds its threat to refuse wage concessions — a move blasted as "blackmail" Thursday by the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

GM estimated it would need 3.0 billion euros (4.5 billion dollars) in state aid and was confident it could secure the sum from Germany and other European countries where Opel and the British Vauxhall unit have plants.

The announcements came a day after GM, which was struggling with a bankruptcy reorganisation backed by the US and Canadian governments, stunned the auto sector by abandoning an agreed plan to sell Opel to Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna International and state-owned Russian bank Sberbank.

It said it would restructure the unit itself, just hours after an unwitting Merkel gave a historic speech before a joint session of the US Congress and held talks with US President Barack Obama.

Obama assured Merkel in a phone call on Wednesday evening that he was "not involved" in GM’s decision, Merkel’s spokesman said Thursday.

Germany’s economy minister on Wednesday slammed GM’s behaviour as "totally unacceptable." Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday called the US firm’s decision "disdainful."

"The last-minute withdrawal from the completion of this deal does not harm our interests, but to put it mildly, it reflects our American partners’ peculiar way of dealing with their counterparts," Putin said.

Merkel’s government had invested major financial and political capital in saving Opel from insolvency before a September general election that which she handily won.

Beyond pledging 4.5 billion euros in state aid for the ailing company, Berlin spent months shepherding a rescue deal.

About half the company’s employees work in Germany and although Magna had said it would cut around 10,500 jobs, Berlin had been confident that most of the German staff would be spared.

"It is incredible how GM has played with the feelings, the fears, the worries and the needs of Opel workers and their families," Klaus Franz, the head of Opel’s works committee, told demonstrators in Ruesselsheim.

"I’m going to laugh myself sick if GM restructures us. It’s not going to work, it’s all going to do down the drain," Uwe Raubert, who has worked at Opel for 33 years, told AFP.

In contrast to Germany, in Spain, where many had feared local workers would bear the brunt of a sale to Opel, the press was largely optimistic about the effects of the GM turnabout.

And Britain’s biggest trade union Unite, which greeted GM’s decision with delight on Wednesday, said Thursday it was keen to work with GM to ensure job cuts at Opel were voluntary.

Peter Mandelson, British business minister, said there must be a "fair balance" of jobs lost and state aid given by European governments. "And that is of course something that we have yet to discuss amongst ourselves and with the GM management."

Deborah Cole/AFP/Expatica