update: 07-09-2017           wildcat.zirkular.thekla.materials


Get rid of the working class to save the climate?

News just in: German car industry multinationals maintained secret arrangements for years to keep production costs low and profit high. We are utterly astonished!

The car industry has a long history of forced labour, ecological destruction, armaments production, co-operation with military dictatorships etc. Some of it is criminal even under the German Civil Code. VW do Brasil, for instance, collaborated with the police during the military dictatorship 1964-1985, informing on troublemaking workers. The Wolfsburg headquarters was well aware of those workers' subsequent arrest and torture. Daimler-Benz likewise collaborated with the military dictatorship in Argentina. In the »VW Beefsteaks« project of the 1970s1 – which became public knowledge only two weeks ago – VW Brazil moved into the meat business at the invitation of the Brazilian military regime, under an arrangement sweetened by tax breaks. 140,000 hectares of Brazilian rainforest were cleared and thousands of subcontracted or forced laborers were exploited under inhuman conditions. Some were apparently killed »while attempting to escape«.

Political failure

The German »diesel summit« held early in August yielded no substantial results: expensive engine conversions were ruled out, although a software patch and purchase incentives were proposed. "Some people are subject to the law, others get summits", was Die Zeit’s comment on the summit and the German government's outright refusal – in breach of EU law – to impose fines for the illegal activity. As ultimate guarantor of national capital, the government should ensure that Germany's »Vorsprung durch Technik« branding will not be undermined by the wrongdoing of its automotive multinationals. The Spiegel wrote that politics had »failed«, because it had to »protect the car industry from itself and force it to take effective measures.« (3/8/2017). The FAZ wrote: "Those who badmouth the car industry pursue an agenda of deindustrialisation. What is true however, is that the large manufacturers need more pressure from politics and society so as not to solidify." (14/8/2017)

The summit missed a chance to use ecological arguments to force the car industry to modernise structurally. A second diesel summit is scheduled for the autumn, after the German elections.

A matter of legal regulation

In terms of technology, it would be possible to make a 125-year old diesel engine relatively clean. But this is not mandatory for cars, which is why a Smart car with a diesel engine emits four times as much nitrogen oxide as a Daimler truck! 2. And also why direct-injection engines without particle filters emit 10-100 times more particles than those diesel engines equipped with particle filters as a legal requirement 3. In 2011 research by NABU found that the 15 largest ships in the world emitted as many sulphur oxides as all the cars in operation back then. Since then the number of cars has increased by 150 million to 950 million, while container ships have doubled in size, and the world's largest cruise ship was launched in 2016.

Under EU regulations the maximum sulphur concentration permitted in automotive fuel is 0.001% by volume. The corresponding limit for shipping fuel is 3.55% (reduced in 2015 to 0.1% when ships operate near harbours: still 100 times the most allowed in cars). The heavy fuel oil used in ships is the filthiest of all fuels. Behind their glossy façade, luxury cruiseships are floating waste incinerators. 4 Even the emissions from aircraft are less destructive in relative terms, though still worse than those from cars. For nitrogen dioxide on roads, German law sets an upper limit of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre. Inside closed rooms, the »maximum workplace concentration« (MAK) prescribed by the Bundesgesundheitsblatt (Federal Health Bulletin) is almost 24 times higher, at 950 mcg. 5

Strange environmentalists

Environmentalists and leftists fight the use of cars as personal transport, but for the most part they neglect social demands such as free public transportation. Winfried Wolf and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH, »German Environmental Action«) demand a ban on driving. Labournet rails against the »bourgeois apathy« that »enables the car fetish«, while others again resort to heavy rhetorical weapons, declaring that "the automotive ideology – as total, indestructible economic, political and popular consensus – has inherited Fascism wholesale" (ND, 5/8/17).

With its slogan "Diesel Emissions Kill", DUH has made a business model from the fight against the diesel engine and in favour of electric vehicles(»e-cars«). This NGO derives almost 30% of its income from the proceeds of fines, and has for years received money from Toyota (which now markets only two diesel engines and sells only around half as many diesel vehicles as German competitors as a percentage of total sales volume).6

E(lectric) cars

At least half the total volume of fine particles attributed to automobiles is generated by tyre abrasion and braking, a problem in no way alleviated by electric cars. The latter also take up just as much space, and their carbon footprint is not much smaller than that of internal combustion engine vehicles once the production of batteries is factored in.

More e-cars are driven in China than anywhere else. The Chinese state subsidises and sometimes imposes the e-car and is also the segment's best customer. But the e-car also has the dirtiest footprint there, because the energy comes from coal-fired plants. The »cleanest« e-cars are driven in France, because the percentage of energy coming from nuclear power stations is highest. The ecological consequences of the mass production of batteries and the cost of their eventual disposal are as yet unknown.

Driving bans

don’t stop the rich having themselves driven long distances by chauffeurs in big cars. The way around it lies in vehicle type classification and thresholds. A Porsche Cayenne might have »Euro 6« certification even though the old Euro-4 Kadett that someone drives to work needs only a third of the fuel. If exhaust emissions are calculated relative to income, the carbon footprint of the highest income groups –who travel more often in general, especially by plane, yacht and luxury ship – is much more than that of the lowest income groups. But workers are the ones hit by driving bans.

The wrong goals

The current scandals (»dieselgate«, cartels, beef…) won’t lead to the arrest of Winterkorn and Zetsche, nor to universally accessible mobility or all-round eco-friendliness… The scandals are a sideshow accompanying the attempt to get rid of the last well paid working-class jobs left and at the same time to make sure that "the taxpayer", i.e. the workers again, picks up the bill. In this sense the anti-diesel campaign of some environmental organisations and the media really is "a war against the industrial base". But a left perspective should focus on fighting together with car industry workers against the industry. Those workers' perspective may involve turning their cumulative »know-how« against capital: fighting against job losses and for reduced working hours on the same terms for everyone – and for production of clean, »state-of-the-art« vehicles. Only with the working class and working class knowledge can the climate be saved.

»The limits of growth«

Environmentalist campaigns unfailingly follow the Club of Rome tradition – rather than, say, that of the workers of Mestre, who fought much earlier against the ecologically destructive dimensions of capitalist development. 7

Not long after the "mass worker" of the 1970s won higher wages and better conditions in general, crisis struck and the price of oil rose sharply. »Self-sacrifice« was preached across the West; on TV, US president Nixon instructed everyone to conserve scarce resources by driving more slowly and cutting back on heating. A Report to the Club of Rome, funded by the Volkswagen foundation, purported to show that supplies of all kinds would run out if people who eat and pollute so much (etc) were to go on being born at the present rate. This document, entitled "The Limits to [sic] Growth", used ecological arguments against the ever bolder claims of the working class. Consumption resulting from higher wages (e.g. all those cars purchased) would kill the planet. The "limits of growth" were invoked as a lesson to the working class: trees don’t grow into the sky.


Capitalism has praised and fostered »mobility« like no other social system. And things seemed to go on just as they had before the Club of Rome report was published: in 1972 36 million vehicles (cars, trucks, buses) were produced worldwide; in 2016 the figure was 95 million. The world's population has doubled in size since 1970, during which time production has more than trebled. 8. But in fact mobility has become increasingly polarised. Goods are available worldwide, and worldwide mobility is enjoyed by the upper classes and certain highly qualified workers. But their mobility is possible only because it is impossible for anyone else to move as much – that really would ruin the planet! Mobility is more unequal than income distribution. More and more people – including in Germany – can no longer afford mobility: they no longer take vacations; they can’t apply for better jobs because they can’t afford the daily cost of transport.


The car industry is overaccumulated. This is evident in excess capacity, which leads to excess production and sales crises. The difference between car production and sales globally is 2.6 million cars (oica.net), or the equivalent of around 9 full-scale car factories including suppliers that would have to be closed. Bear in mind too that the official figure of 69.5 million new car registrations last year includes considerable airbrushing in the form of purchases by the car companies themselves, corporate fleets, state purchases, and so on. The US and European governments successfully fought the car sales crisis of 2007-8 with sales incentives. The scrapping bonus of €2500 introduced at the beginning of 2009 led to a fantastic business year for Germany’s car companies: 3.8 million new vehicles were sold in 2009 – more than ever before or since. This state intervention prolonged by a few years a business model built on "lowering costs through guaranteed purchase". The car industry was once a formidable driver of capitalist development, but ever since "lean production" no sector has slowed development more.

The car industry is currently attempting to even out its sales dip again using buyer’s premiums, and it will probably work. But this time the companies will have to pay for it themselves. The one reason the drop in sales need only be called a ‘dip’ is China, which accounts for 28 percent of the global market. BMW, Daimler and VW sell almost every third new vehicle in China.

Volkswagen, for example:

The last few years saw a restructuring of development: shorter set-up times for new factories (the Audi plant in Puebla, Mexico built in a record-breaking 3.5 years; VW Chattanooga, Tennessee enlarged); the market launch of even more models and a simultaneous standardisation of parts. Strategic buyouts where VW lacks specialist expertise (eg. Israeli Uber competitor Gett); costs cut where the expertise already exists. A new Electronics Research Laboratory opened in Silicon Valley. For "e-mobility", the VW boss wants a special 13th brand as part of the conglomerate. But there is no visible strategy, no innovation, development bosses come and go. Sales are falling: Renault-Nissan topped global sales in the first half of 2017, whereas in the past few years it was either VW or Toyota.

Car workers as part of capital

In class terms, overaccumulation means basically that permanent workers with high pension claims are part of the fixed cost. Since the '80s the car industry has attempted to stop this excess accumulation, bringing in more sub-contracted workers, more suppliers, more temporary jobs. General Motors used the global crisis 10 years ago to get rid of well paid car manufacturing jobs in the Northern US states. Factories were closed, some divisions were outsourced, new factories were built in the Southern states and in Mexico. And capacity correspondingly increased. In Europe fewer factories were closed, while more still were built in Eastern Europe.

Ever since the struggles of the mass worker, the car industry multinationals have tried to make factories smaller and production leaner. But it's never enough: they still need several thousand workers for a "fully fledged" car factory with body shell work, paint shop and assembly. In the meantime it also became clear that cars cannot be produced profitably and without defects if the suppliers are far away and parts must be shipped around the world. As a consequence, suppliers tend increasingly to set up in close geographical proximity to large existing car plants. This means they cannot dissolve the high concentration of workers, but they have nonetheless successfully set workers against each other through sharply differentiated employment conditions.

There are better solutions than the e-car (eg. synthetic fuels) from a technical standpoint, and certainly in political terms (free public transportation). But the e-car is the perfect capitalist solution: it can be assembled in much smaller factories, it preserves the model of individualized vehicle traffic, and the last remnants of relatively well paid industrial work can be done away with once and for all. This is what lies behind the hype around Tesla and the "Google car".

Workers' struggle in the car industry

This February, Daimler in Stuttgart threatened job cuts as part of "the transition to e-mobility", announcing that most battery production would take place elsewhere, outside the terms of the collective agreement. This led to some angry staff meetings, following which the works council organised an overtime boycott in June at the Untertürkheim Daimler plant. Management then agreed to keep battery production in-house and within the collective agreement. But the workers paid a price, accepting "measures to increase flexibility and efficiency". Almost simultaneously, Daimler announced the construction of a €655 million battery plant in China. Ultimately everyone knows that the 19,000 jobs in Untertürkheim will be cut down severely in the medium term. A local paper compared the Stuttgart of the future to Detroit.

During the last few strikes by car factory workers in Eastern Europe, there was no mention of the car industry crisis or the e-car. The VW strike in Bratislava and the Fiat strike in Kragujevac (Serbia) were mostly about the wage difference between Western and (South-) Eastern Europe. Workers in Serbia, Slovakia and elsewhere are no longer willing to accept assembling the same product only a few hundred km away from others doing the same job in Germany – and paying roughly the same (sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less) for groceries – while receiving only a fraction of the German wage. Unfortunately these strikes have not yet been very effective. Given falling sales and rising production capacity, they even run the risk of playing into capital’s hands: the case of Fiat Kragujevac shows how large amounts of money may be redistributed upwards class-wise to keep a factory running. In terms of money it would have been better not to bring Fiat into the country, and to give the subsidies directly to the workers instead. The Serbian state gave the company a free gift of €50 million in cash, along with land and 300,000 m2 of factory space. The state also built roads and infrastructure, waived income tax and social insurance requirements, and goes on giving what is now Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) €11,000 for each new worker employed. Workers at the plant barely make €350 a month.

The first strike in Bratislava since production started at the factory points to a shift in the stakes of struggle. Since the 1990s, German car industry multinationals have successfully used the relocation to Eastern Europe as a tool to put pressure on their local workers, but now workers are scarce and wages are rising. After 6 days of strike, Bratislava agreed to a 14.12% wage increase (albeit staggered over 3 stages), plus a one-off payment of €50, two extra holidays (one in 2018, the other in 2019) and an increase in sick pay from 20% to 60% of the average wage. The strikers also managed to get rid of the 2nd and 3rd wage brackets. The €679 entry-level wage (gross) will be increased to €834. Meanwhile, the opening of yet more factories – VW in Poland, JLR in Slovakia, Magna in Slovenia – leads not just to further excess production but also to a labour shortage. The »Eastern Europe« blackmail no longer serves any disciplinary purpose against workers elsewhere on the continent. This means it should be possible to get more out of BMW, Daimler and VW in Germany than could ever be hoped for from polite litigation against temporary contracts and in favour of permanent jobs. A lot more is most definitely necessary, because for car industry workers, nothing is not at stake.

more on this topic:

Wildcat 86 – Frühjahr 2010: Hybridmotor oder Klassenkampf

Wildcat 93 – Sommer 2012: What if they learn to hate?

Wildcat 95 – Winter 2013/2014: Automobiles: Struggles and Class Divisions

23-08-2017 [German version]

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