The Green Transition Can’t Be an Excuse to Fire Workers

German engineering giant Bosch is mounting massive layoffs in the name of adapting to the electric car market. But workers insist the move is really about increasing profits — and climate protesters have joined the fight to save their jobs.

Bosch shows components for electric cars at an international auto show in Munich, Germany. (Sven Hoppe / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

“This is a catastrophe,” says Giuseppe Ciccone, standing in front of a Bosch engineering plant in Munich, Germany. On a day of action organized by the IG Metall union, he has just given a combative speech to about six hundred workers. The chairman of the local Bosch works council (a structure for employee representation), Ciccone has been working at the plant for almost four decades, having started there at age eighteen. The plant and its employees are a central part of his life. “Like a family,” he says. But, as of late, the family has been wracked by crisis, with the plant’s future now at stake.

Last year, Bosch announced plans to close the facility, hitherto known as a production site for combustion engines, manufacturing fuel pumps and valves for diesel and petrol engines — none of which are going to be used in electric cars. Twenty years ago, about 1,600 people worked at the site; today, there are only about 260 left. But their fight against the planned closure has come to symbolize the wider conflict over Germany’s auto industry — and its workers’ future.

Transformation From Above

Bosch is currently the world’s largest supplier for the auto industry — with most of its turnover coming from combustion engine technology. If it is to maintain its powerful position, the company will have to transform. To this end, it plans, among other things, to relocate the production that was previously located in Munich. A small part would go to Nuremberg, also in Germany, but the bulk would head to the Czech Republic or Brazil. The move comes even after current employees lost €40 million in potential earnings between 2005 and 2017 as part of an agreement to secure their jobs. It’s a remarkable approach from a firm whose website boasts of the Munich plant’s “family-like togetherness.”

Similar plans to cut jobs exist for the firm’s plants in Arnstadt in Thuringia and Bühl in Baden. In the former case, Bosch wants to stop production entirely; in the latter, 1,000 of the current 3,700 jobs stand to be slashed.

The company is justifying its plans citing the transition to e-mobility and the accompanying adjustment of the corporate structure. It has announced its intention to make electric mobility its core business and to turn “CO2-free” mobility into an opportunity for growth. To this end, the company wants to close various production sites and use restructuring to save money and cut jobs. The production of electric cars requires significantly fewer workers than those with combustion engines.

But for Miyase Erdogan, who, like Ciccone, has worked at the Munich plant for decades, it is clear that “this has nothing to do with electric cars.” Bosch has long wanted to relocate production to so-called low-wage countries, and IG Metall thinks that Bosch is misusing talk of the transition to e-mobility as a mere pretext for its plans to close plants and find ways of increasing its profits. In short, Bosch doesn’t want to stop making money off combustion engines; it just wants to make them cheaper.

Hard Nut to Crack

The workers at the Munich plant refuse to accept Bosch’s moves and are demanding their jobs be saved. Among other things, they have developed an alternative proposal to secure both the site and jobs in Munich. To them it’s clear that sites producing combustion engines can be used to produce different, environmentally friendly products in the future. “We could all make it work, if the will was there,” insists Ciccone.

IG Metall initiated the next phase of the conflict on November 26, 2021, with a day of solidarity actions targeting Bosch. In Munich, Arnstadt, and Bühl, a total of almost 2,500 workers protested for their future. Music echoed through the quiet residential area in the east of Munich where the Bosch plant is located, with red flags fluttering and combative speeches flowing from a loudspeaker system. Almost the entire Munich workforce united for the rally in front of their plant, and workers from Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Bamberg, and Blaibach also came to support their colleagues. All those who were on the streets in Munich that morning knew that this was about all their futures.

The Bosch Group’s actions reflect the wider restructuring of the car industry in Germany, which has been ongoing for quite some time. So far, it’s come at the expense of employees. Tens of thousands have already been laid off, Daimler plans to fire up to twenty thousand workers, and the supplier Continental is also closing numerous plants and plans to sack up to thirteen thousand employees. The rest are forced to compete for the few remaining jobs in e-mobility. “The transformation is ongoing,” says Ciccone. “And it’s only a matter of time before it’s other plants’ turn.”

But the broad response to the call for the day of action also gives him hope:

Today we saw many Bosch plants and IG Metall workers showing solidarity with us. And I believe this solidarity will grow. We need to strengthen solidarity once again. Only then will we be able to tell the employers they can’t do this to us. If there had only been 250 people here, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. But, through the solidarity with Bosch plants, IGM workers, environmental activists, and all the others who are joining us at the moment, Bosch will find us a hard nut to crack. It’s not just about 250 people. If you mess with 250, you mess with everyone.

Climate Protection and Class Struggle

Ciccone’s reference to solidarity from environmental activists may seem surprising at first. But, in fact, a group of climate activists is also campaigning against the closure of the plant and was present at the day of action. After reading about the planned plant closure in the newspaper, they started going to the factory gate to talk to the people who work there. The workers were initially skeptical — but after a few weeks their doubts had dissipated.

This rare but urgent alliance between climate activism and car industry workers led to the formation of a group called “Climate Protection and Class Struggle.” It argues that

the call for redundancies for climate protection is driving a rift between the climate movement and the more than 800,000 people who are directly employed in the car industry in Germany, and is thereby hindering the common fight against the climate catastrophe. We cannot accept this.

The conversations outside the plant led to a joint petition agreed on by both the climate groups and workers. It insists both that there should be no layoffs in the name of climate protection and that there should be a transition toward ecological production. A large majority of the workers signed the petition. Indeed, a comprehensive transformation of the supplier and the wider auto industry could not only compensate for job losses but even create hundreds of thousands of new ones, even if this shouldn’t just mean a turn to making electric cars.

Most importantly, unions, workers, and climate activists agreed that the change we need will depend on stronger alliances between climate and labor struggles. There is no doubt that the transformation of the car industry will continue. But that also poses the need for a struggle about safe and good jobs, about fighting the climate catastrophe that so urgently demands the transformation of the industry, and about ensuring this transformation doesn’t benefit corporations at the expense of the environment and workers.

Munich’s example of an alliance between the climate movement and autoworkers provides a fitting answer to the question of whether such joint organizing can succeed. Ciccone and those who turned up for the day of action certainly haven’t given up hope for the future of the plant: in his speech, he promised that he and his fellow fighters would chain themselves to the machines, if need be. For him, for the affected workers at the Bosch sites, and for many workers along the production and supply chains of the auto industry, there’s a long struggle ahead — just as there is for the climate movement.