Wildcat No. 79, Autumn 2007, pp. 33–38 [w79_auto5000_en.htm]

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»At some point you are not interested in the technology anymore, but in what the technology pressures you into«

Interview with VW 'Auto 5000' worker, wildcat #79, Autumn 2007

Translated by prol-position

During the crisis at the beginning of the 1990s the employers painted the picture of the end of the 'production location Germany'. The core of the German industry – the car factories – was allegedly about to be relocated to eastern Europe, like other industries before. This threatening picture formed the background for several 'innovative projects' of the employers – with the agreement of IG Metall (metal union) – which were meant to prove that labour in Germany can still be profitable for the employers. The flexible boundary for the union was the Flächentarifvertrag (regional sector-wide collective contract) and the survival of its institutionalised power. A typical 'win-win-situation' bet­ween the social partners, as marketing German would put it. The union was still accepted as a negotiating partner and the right of co-determination (within the companies) of the works council was partly extended. The wage level in the car industry was lowered significantly, but remained above the Flächentarif (the rate stipulated in the collective contract) though in some cases this is only because workers receive various bonuses (shift-work, productivity). The employers got a considerable reduction of the labour costs, mainly due to new working-time models and new forms of work organisation. IG Metall hailed the 'new chance' for the unemployed.

As in most 'win-win-situations' those who lose are the workers. The '5000x5000' project, planned by the VW labour director at the time, Peter Hartz, got most of the attention. Most of the attention of the lefties, as well. For the first time on the former West-German territory new work structures were developed in the automobile industry. And there was another novelty: the introduction of new work structures did not happen on a green field, but on the factory premises of VW in Wolfsburg. In terms of propaganda it was the best prepared and processed restructuring project, as well, with social-scientific backing from old professionals of a formerly critical sociology of industry such as Michael Schumann of the Soziologische Forsch­ungsinstitute at the University Göttingen (SoFi).

Six years later SoFi makes the project's final report available to the public.1 Like the VW management and IG Metall, the report still portrays Auto5000 as a model for the future. In his contributing article, Berthold Huber, second chairman of the IG Metall, calls the Auto5000 project a decisive reference point for the 'High-Road-strategy' (original in English) of the German car industry: "Quality of the products as a result of the quality of labour". The content of the reference point: an extended right to co-determination, a right to professional qualification secured by a collective contract, "enriched work content", "predominantly a great number of different work steps and varied work tasks" for the single worker.2

On the occasion of the book launch the union's left repeated the critique they had already raised at the beginning of the project six years ago. They point at the consequences of the "breach in the dam" (Auto5000) for the general policy of collective contracts and criticise the ideology of the 'modern type of employee' as a disguising of the class contradiction.3 Their criticism remains abstract because they confront themselves rather with the myth of the employer than with the reality.

In summer 2006 we met a female worker who is employed at Auto5000, in order to shed some light on the darkness and to get an impression of the reality in this model factory. During the conversation it became clear that so far the employer has succeeded in enforcing worsened working conditions. However this happened not by workers' agreement, but through pressure. This had the result that many illusions amongst the workers have vanished. They do not see themselves as a "distinct workforce" anymore, because many of their conflicts are traditional assembly line workers' problems. Extracts from this conversation form the main thread of the following article. In the introduction we put the assembly plant Auto5000 in the bigger context of the planned restructuring at Volkswagen (VW).

An "AutoVision"

Auto5000 is part of an attempt to re-structure car production completely at VW. The main idea is to fragment the VW workforce and their claims and to put the fragmented parts in competition with each other. The aim is to lower the labour costs on a general level.4 The main problem for VW was how to establish supplier companies with worse working conditions in the Wolfsburg (main plant of VW) region. The VW group sucked in all those people willing to work and had to employ them according to the company collective contract. The crisis of the car industry in the 1990s became the necessary lever. VW downsized its main plant. Production of certain parts were outsourced to other VW plants, VW stopped hiring people and started complaining about excess production capacities.

In 1998 the representatives of the management, the works council, the town Wolfsburg and company consultant McKinsey inaugurated the project AutoVision. The close link between town administration and company was supposed to get rid of 'bureaucratic barriers' which could obstruct the companies' wishes. The local job centre with all its means of putting pressure on people practically turned into a personnel department of VW. Wolfsburg AG, which is half municipally controlled, and its Recruitment Agency (Personalserviceagentur) were supposed to recruit workers for VW and the new supplier companies. The VW-owned temp agency AutoVision GmbH was supposed to transmit this concept beyond the town boundaries. In this way, in the period between 1997 and 2003 about 18,500 new jobs were created in Wolfsburg. The majority of these jobs were linked directly or indirectly to the automobile industry, with a smaller number created in the newly developed Wolfsburg Autostadt (Car City), a kind of tourist attraction. Some other jobs were related to engineering schools, for example the AutoUni (Car University).

In 1999/2000 the 'new production model' was crowned: an independent GmbH (private limited company) owned by VW was formed and named Auto5000. The unions were publicly blackmailed, to get the message across: the new model Touran would only be produced in Wolfsburg if labour costs per car were reduced drastically. Otherwise it would be manufactured in Portugal. After brief hestitation both the union (IG Metall) and the VW works council agreed to the deal. In 2001 the new company started work. In this way Auto5000 is only the final product of a newly created production chain. The Touran is "the first VW model based on a broadly implemented module strategy".5

The car is designed in a way that only few modules are necessary for assembling. These modules are pre-assembled at supplying companies. Characteristically for VW, the company is very cautious regarding external suppliers. Unlike other manufacturers VW hesitates to let external direct suppliers "work at the VW assembly line". VW receives the modules mainly from their own component plants. »Clearly rejected were those concepts which would result in the supplier bringing the modules to the assembly line and assembling them themselves. Such interfaces are not compatible with a production model which deals with quality defect and production backlogs by forcing the employee to do extra unpaid work to compensate if there is evidence of his or her responsibility. Certain tensions would be sure to arise if employees of different companies had to cooperate over this issue of extra work to make up for earlier problems.« (Klobes, S.179).

No amount of caution could prevent Auto5000 from falling victim to a strike at the Spanish supplier of rubber door seals. GDX Automotive, in June 2007. Three full shifts and 800 cars were lost.

The Hiring Process

Allegedly the first 3,000 employees of the model factory were selected from 43,000 applicants. Only 'modern' people had a chance... apparently.

»Then we sat together, in a circle in front of the computers. I counted the women – that didn't take long, there were two of us. That wasn't great. We were allowed to log in and go through all the points, answer all the questions. Stupid questions like 'Would you nick a ball-pen?' You could chose between 'Yes, sure! The company is loaded.' and 'No, I would never do that, that is theft!' Then they tested our reactions, you had to sort keys, like playing Tetris. Without a time limit, just to see how much you are able to sort. I had to laugh. The supervisor didn't get it and threatened me, she told me that I would have to leave if I did not stop laughing. But if they come up with questions like the ball-pen one, I just cannot keep a straight face. We did not get the results.
At some point they sent the invitation for the third test, but with hardly any notice. I was on holiday. I felt really special then, being chosen from allegedly 40,000 applicants... The third test was a practical one. You had to sit down in a car body, they gave you a plan and you had to fit various parts. You had to do it three times. Each time a guy with a stopwatch stood next to you and measured how long it took you. If you got faster each time they were contented.
Then they came up with a questionnaire, but not a multiple-choice one, no answers given. 'What would you do if... your colleague is ill?' They gave points for the answer, but you got no reactions to your answers.
I can only speculate about the selection criteria. Sometimes I think the test was only about to see how far you conform, how far they can pressure you without you resisting. My god, at the beginning you got your self-confidence from the fact that you were 'a chosen one'; later you got it from the fact that you managed to stick it through for three years.«

High hopes – and disillusionment

Although the official propaganda is wrong in
saying that mostly long-term-unemployed were given 'a new chance', nevertheless the applicants' initial expectations were high.6

»We first had a six week long course. They stuffed us with their company philosophy... You thought 'Wow, that will be something really new, something really great. They really want to qualify us and you will develop intellectually, as well'. The others had similar thoughts. We started with 35 cars per shift, in small groups. I was the fifth in the group. Like this we assembled everything, we were crammed in the car with five people. The feet of your colleague were right in your face and your elbow was in your neighbour's face. At that point in time the atmosphere was great.
At the beginning I was fascinated by all the technology. Cars gliding along the ceiling. You have never seen something like that before. Most of us came from more artisan-type jobs, brick-layers, bakers, plumbers, truck drivers... During the first days, when I left the locker-room wearing my Mao-Tse-Tung gear, I always watched the ceiling where the cars were floating by and I thought: 'Fucking hell, that's wicked!' But at some point you stop watching. At some point you are not interested in the technology anymore, but in what the technology pressures you into. You first have to find out what the score is - initially we walked into one trap or the other... Over there in the VW halls, those old geezers know where it's at, they tell you 'Take it easy!'. We didn't know a thing: 'Easy? What for?!'. Then they put more work on your back and you don't have a flipping clue why! 'You did a great job, here you got some more, there are always second-helpings when it comes to work'
When I started we had two, three idle cycles, meaning that you had to work on a car, the next one you could stay idle and so on. Then the day came where there were no idle cycles anymore, but the line was still quite slow. That changed soon after. It was not enough that it went faster, it did not stop either! At the beginning, if there was a problem, the line stopped. Later this did not happen anymore, it just went on and on, no matter what... That's when things started to get stressful. One time I was so tied up that I didn't notice a damned thing: I was still doing my work step, the first work step of my team, when I bumped into a work-mate who was already busy with work in the third section, and I still had not finished my task! I messed up his rhythm and he got pissed off. A stupid remark from his side, a stupid return - woops, there we had the first rupture within our team.
The positive atmosphere at the beginning was also due to the fact that we all earned the same. I do not compare my wage to the wage of a VW worker, but to the one of the work-mate next to me. No-one felt privileged, money-wise. I rarely heard people comparing their wage to VW wages. But a lot of us were concerned about the fact that we were a thorn in the flesh of many VW workers, because we were seen as 'the cheap ones'. It was not our fault, but we had to bear the brunt of it. That was the mean thing: although we were not guilty we had to serve as the bogeyman. Right, the whole issue calmed down a bit after the company collective contract II; wage-wise, those workers who start working at VW now are more in our league than in the league of the old workers at VW.«

The work does not fulfil the expectations, but a huge company like Auto5000 offers prospects which a small company is not able to promise. Apart from future (employment) prospects most of the workers welcomed the promise of 'qualification' eagerly - because it contained possibilities of further education and the chance to get a different kind of work in the future. And the learning process was supposed to be self-organised "organised for colleagues by colleagues". The company hoped that the self-organisation of learning would make it easier to generalise the individual and daily little tricks of single workers to a standard for all.

»Initially 60 per cent of the people thought they would make a career. They thought that the position of a team spokesperson could be a jumping-off place. But the career is not for all, it is impossible that everyone climbs up the hierarchy. If you had a professional business training you might get a job in the office, through internal vacancies. But if you did an apprenticeship as a chef in your previous job life? The expectations clearly changed. Some guys still believed in the career, but generally speaking the drive was gone. This is why many, really many people fell into an abyss, they fell down the rock hard side of reality. Because reality was not like the official philosophy. Initially we were 20 people in the prep class. The first guy quit after three days, three more after two weeks. They could not stand it. Assembly line work is quite a thing.
At the beginning there was hardly any training. For a long time I thought that it was still to come. My father always told me: "Lass, just wait, something will be coming". Later they actually did some training. The topic of my first training session was: "The proper handling of an air-bag". That was half a year after I started working practically with those air-bags. They organised the training at a point when the line was not running, due to a failure. In order to avoid having people hanging about, that was why they called us for the training. "You already know how to do this work, great, all clear, just keep on doing it...". The next topic was "The health concept of Auto5000". I really started thinking about what kind of philosophy that could be.
Then the issue of shallow hierarchies: First us, the workers, of course; Then the engineers and the management. Three levels. That's how it was supposed to be. In reality they never put that into practice. It was supposed to be a kind of mutual cooperation, not from above. But the hierarchy is there, it is a simple fact.«

The workers and the market economy...

A decisive element of the 'innovation' of Auto5000 is the attempt to bang so-called market economic thinking into the heads of the workers. On one hand this is supposed to be achieved by giving incentives to the total workforce (company profit-based extra payments), the single teams (bonus for team performance) and for the individual worker (performance bonus). The churning out of allegedly objective figures and stats delivers the matching ideology: the management presents itemized company accounts to the workers, and shows them Auto5000's own bids for VW contracts, with all the related figures. These are meant to prove that you have to offer this or that in order to survive within the market competition. If you have been on sick leave you have to undergo 'back-from-sick-leave'-conversations with your boss. During these conversations you are confronted with detailed calculations about how many Euros and cents you have cost the company last year. This thinking is supposed to foster individualisation and competition between the departments of the work-force, the teams and the individual workers.

On the other hand the company applies enormous direct pressure if the brainwashing fails. If someone is often sick and does not seem to take the company's calculations too seriously, the threat of dismissal is on the agenda immediately. If you are sick too often you are obviously not 'fit for the industry'. If you make a mistake you can be forced to do unpaid extra work. The obligation to document each and every movement and performance is supposed to increase the fear: if you have cheated or haven't done a proper job, they can make you pay the bill even after years.

»The conflict about the signing is a typical one. Every work-step has to be signed by the person who did it, for documentation purposes. If, for example, the airbag does not open during an accident, they can check who it was assembled by. So far, this has not happened, but the pressure is in the air. Well, then somebody forgot to sign. At the end of the shift someone signs for the whole team. S/he sees that something is missing. If s/he signs anyway, then s/he is responsible. If s/he does not sign, then the air-bag will be rejected and make-up work will have to be done. What should s/he do?!
At the beginning there were enough people whose job it was to control the quality. At our line there were three of them. They used to check that everything was correct. If you had problems to keep up, they used to help you every now and then. When the line started to speed up, then they simply had no time to do it. They freaked out if someone made a mistake. Sometimes they had to run to the opposite line, where the next team was already working, and they tried to iron things out. There is a final line where you can park cars which need correction work. But the time for parking is limited to three hours. During that time the team has to work hard in order to make one member available for the necessary correction work, to set one free. If the team does not succeed then the car leaves the parking. Then you have to correct the mistake in your free time, up to two hours unpaid work. I had to do this unpaid correction work once, but usually the team manages to correct things quick enough. Depending on the mistake it might take you longer than two hours – it is possible that you would have to do things you know nothing about. A messy situation, impossible really. You have to get it done in your team.«

There are no 'fordist' time-keepers – but you have to justify yourself personally for why you are not able to do this or that work step additionally, given that other teams manage to do it. You are either not able or not willing – both is bad. Still, as far as the pressure from above makes it possible, the workers try to keep up comradely relationships.

»The speed-up came. They made the line run faster and faster, a performance test. At some point I said: 'I am done. It knocks me out'. When you say 'I can't take it anymore' , then you stop working. My team had to perform 14 work steps. Between these 14 work steps you can change your work position, you can rotate within the team. The team has to arrange the work itself, it has to agree on how to do it. That went quite well, initially. Until the day when the first people went sick. The first work-mate had back aches. There are a lot of things he cannot do anymore. He talks to the company engineer. The engineer says: 'Listen, if you cannot do this, then you are not fit for the industry anymore'. So the guy gets scared, of course. The team tries to help out. Now the guy only does what he still can. The team sticks together as long as it is able to. Where do you put the second guy with back aches, where the third and where the guy with chronic wrist pain? At the end you are left with six work steps you can rotate, all the others are booked for those with special needs.
The problems cropped up when the line started to run properly. Some people suddenly made remarks like 'Someone is going to the loo too often'. Some looked around and counted how many people were on the loo at the moment. Arguments started like 'Do you really have to take a crap right now?!' Sounds ridiculous, but it's true. In the assembly department you cannot stop the line and there is no stand-in anymore, a guy who could do your work while you are absent. The team has to make up for it itself. Once, in summer, a guy collapsed, the ambulance came, work-mates had to support him and walked him out of the hall – and the line kept on running, they did not stop it!«

The fact that there are only a few hierarchy levels is achieved by delegating a lot of tasks to the 'master level' (here they call them company engineers) and to the teams. Project groups from different departments and the works council sit together in order to solve allegedly objective problems as 'close to the production flow' as possible: how can we work even more effectively in order to get this or that external order? The calculation of the wage incentives works similarly: in the past the time-keepers and REFA-people (work process analysts) determined the piece work figures, today the works council takes part in defining 'target agreements' for the whole company and the single teams.

»There is no time-watch, but they test whether you are able to add certain work steps to your work cycle. They debate together with the team spokesperson at which position they want to try to integrate the extra work load. You cannot refuse the attempt. They stand next to you, observe you and take notes. After that they debate again and decide whether it works and then they note it done in the standard work documents: work step, time of the work cycle, how many people... etc. The 'target agreement' is then shown to the team. The 'target agreement' contains: numbers of finished cars or work cycles per day and per week, how many stoppages, how many work accidents, quality instructions... The company engineer signs the agreement. They are his personal instructions.«

During the team sessions the workers are only allowed to vote whether they think they have achieved the given targets or not. The 'target agreements' are determined from above anyway, this is why the workers call the allegedly democratic decision making ironically the 'traffic light game'.

»At the beginning we took the team sessions really seriously. That petered out after a while and then we only play the 'traffic light game': 'Quality – Who votes for green.' or 'Motivation – does anyone want to say something, does anyone votes red?' The same with the question of the numbers of pieces. These are the three points we can vote on. The really important point is motivation. For the two other points they have their own benchmarks anyway. If they think that the quality is bad then it doesn't matter if we all voted for 'green'. 'Motivation' is the only thing which they actually take in. The company engineer has to make sure that the motivation is fine. His extra bonus also depends on the question whether he is able to motivate his team or not.«

The first strikes

The daily conflicts are argued out in the same manner as in traditional companies. Like in any other company those conflicts do not question the legitimacy of work, at least this is how they appear on the outside. The fact that people have to do extra correction or make-up work is not put into question generally, but by asking the question "Who is responsible?" the struggle is about at least getting paid for this work.

The sick leave rate has increased to a level which is not lower than in any other assembly plant. The dismissals due to sickness are rather a threat in the background, they only actually happen rarely. In most cases the people in question are pushed out by offering them severance pay.

At the start of the project the priority of the union was to extend its institutional influence. It succeeded. The works council has more of a say compared to other companies.

Not all the worker representatives on the works council are elected from within the Auto5000 workforce. Members of mother company VW's works council are delegated to that of Auto5000 in order to 'look after and counsel'. It is impossible to get people from your 'own company' on the 'first and saver' positions on the IG Metall (metal union) ballot list for works council elections. Initially there weren't any shop-stewards (Vertrauensleute) at all; later under the pressure of the workers so-called 'communication delegates' got elected. Up until recently the leadership of these delegates was not elected at all, the IG Metall leadership just appointed them. The IG Metall officials don't believe that the 'former unemployed' (that's what they often call the Auto5000 workers) are capable of taking care of their own issues themselves.

On the other hand IG Metall is not able to dissociate itself completely from the Auto5000 workers: in 2006 – when the collective project contract ran out and the workers debated intensively and developed their own demands – the union was at first caught napping and then they decided to let the workers do their thing, though kept them on the long lead of the union. The workers organised several token strikes involving up to 4,000 workers. Some VW workers took part, as well. The main concern of the workers was – apart from a wage increase – to lower the pressure within the teams: the workers managed to fight back against the demands of the management to link the team bonus and holidays to the general sick leave rate. Afterwards IG Metall tried to regain control. They suggested to the workers to put the leadership back into professional and experienced hands... "You guys, being former unemployed, are not really able to do this job". Single activists were put under pressure. Currently the mixture of pressure and entanglement in dull union board activities seems to have choked the enthusiasm to a large extent.

There was no open split between workers and union, the workers rather took the claim of IG Metall to be a workers' organisation at face value and thereby came into conflict with its leading structure. There were no independent forms of organising, therefore it was not too difficult for the union to contain the engagement. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the workers took the collective contract conflict essentially into their own hands argues against the picture, painted amongst others by Stephan Krull,7 of a 'disarmed' work-force, lulled into passivity by a new work organisation and the accompanying ideology.

The relationship between VW workers and Auto5000 workers changed, as well. The VW workers have seen that the new work-force is not a bunch of 'demoralised unemployed'. In addition, in autumn 2006 the VW works council has signed a collective contract which says that future wage increases at VW are linked to the regional metal sector collective contract. The VW workers keep their (better) company collective contract, but they will not get any independent wage increase till 2011. This fact limits the corporatism of the works council, at least in terms of wage policies. We can hope that this will result in the VW workers opening their eyes to the situation of other workers - in the region and within their 'own' company group.


In-house Company Agreement II
With the employment pact of 2004, a second in-house rate was agreed on for new employees. It was based on the regional collective agreement for Lower Saxony and was therefore significantly worse than the old Company Agreement I.

The collective project contract 2001 Working Time
The working time is 35 "value creating" hours per week. The so-called qualification and communication time is not included in these 35 hours. That means a minimum of 1.5 hours weekly (meetings, team-sessions) are not counted as official working time. Theoretically three hours per week are dedicated for these 'administrative meetings' (e.g. developing time schedules for holidays etc.), only half of the time is paid. The maximum weekly working time is 42 hours. Workers work in a three-shift model. Their is no extra payment either for the early Saturday shift or for the night shift Sunday to Monday. Any overtime (35 hours +) is accumulated in a work-time account (max. 200 hours), there is no extra payment for over-time.

Works council and management agree on a 'program', determining the numbers of pieces to produce. Whoever does not achieve the determined numbers has to work longer. This time is only paid if the company is 'responsible' for the failure.
The basic wage is 4,500 Deutsche Mark (about 2,300 Euros) before tax, plus 6,000 Deutsche Mark guaranteed annual bonus (including night-shift bonus), plus various individual non-fixed bonus.

The new collective contract 2006
Apart from a wage increase of 3 per cent the other achievement is a re-organisation of the bonus system. Instead of having a lump annual bonus night-shifts are now paid at 20 per cent extra and Sundays/bank holidays at 100 per cent extra. There are two additional bonuses of 1,000 Euros each in summer and winter. On the negative side: working-time is now more flexible, the work-time account can be extended to plus/minus 400 hours.


[1] Schumann u.a.: VW-Auto-5000: Ein neues Produktions­konzept. Die deutsche Antwort auf den Toyota-Weg?, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 2006: www.labournet.de/branchen/auto/vw/5000/index.html

[2] "Through demanding and qualified work the self-confidence and the willingness to perform of the employees grows. They need a chance for their personal development. And they need a guaranteed right to a say and co-determination at the workplace. Both employee and company will profit!... The results of the SoFi co-study demonstrate: the majority of the employees are contented. They are willing to perform to a very high degree and they make efficiency their own concern. Without renouncing their own interests!" (p. 151)

[3] Das Modell VW: Auto5000. Schön geredet und gesund gebetet. Stephan Krull, Sozialistische Zeitung, March 2007: www.labournet.de/branchen/auto/vw/5000/krull.html

[4] After the mass redundancies and the restructuring in the Belgium Forest VW factory, a AutoVision site is now due to open there.

[5] Klobes, Frank: Produktionstrategien und Organisationsmodi: Internationale Arbeitsteilung am Beispiel von zwei Standorten der Volkswagen AG Hamburg: VSA; 2005; p 178

[6] "We have to ask whether 3,500 unemployed got 'a real life chance'. 18 per cent of the production workers were not unemployed before starting at Auto5000. 12 per cent were unemployed for less than a month. 15 per cent for less than three months and 21 per cent for less than six months. Only 16 per cent were unemployed for over a year. Only 5 per cent were not skilled workers, 52 per cent had a professional qualification as metal workers or electricians. It is noteworthy that only few women (7 per cent) and no handicapped people were selected for being hired", Stephan Krull, Das Modell VW (see footnote 3).

[7] See footnote 3.

[german version]

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