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GM’s Opel workers attend mass rally to save jobs

  Thousands of Opel workers from around Germany took part in a mass rally on Thursday at the company’s headquarters, demanding parent General Motors scrap plans for plant closures in Europe.

Carrying banners reading “Free Opel” and “Opel cannot be allowed to die”, the workers came to Opel headquarters west of Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt in busses from other Opel plants in Eisenach, Bochum and Kaiserslautern.

Germany’s Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke at the rally, pledging his support to help keep Opel in the carmaking business. The Social Democrat is running against Chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s federal election.

“This is a fight for jobs and I’m fighting without any reservation for you,” Steinmeier said outside the company, which has been making cars in Germany since 1899. “Opel is a part of German history. We’ve got to defend that history.”

Steinmeier added: “This is about more than just Opel. It’s about the future of the car industry in Germany. The car sector isn’t just any ordinary industry here. It’s the backbone of our economy.”

GM’s European brands are near collapse in the wake of the global crisis. Opel, once Germany’s biggest carmaker, has been hit by weak demand and its woes have been aggravated by troubles at its US parent. Union leaders in Russelsheim said they were expecting 18,000 workers at rally.

So far, Germany has been spared the political protests that have hit other states because Germans have learned to live with stagnation, trust their government and have little post-war tradition of industrial strife.

Opel, the first European carmaker to seek a government bailout since the financial crisis began, first sought government backing to guarantee loans of about €1 billion ($1.3 billion) for 2009. A source at the carmaker told Reuters the group needs €3.3 billion to keep afloat through to the end of 2011.

German leaders have been sparring about how far the government should go to rescue Opel, with some politicians arguing the carmaker should be left to fend for itself.

Merkel told a news conference in Berlin she had not yet seen the required restructuring plan to decide on any state help for Opel but that if it needed it, the priority would be financing guarantees rather than more direct state aid. “Germany has an interest in strengthening companies which have a strong foundation,” she said.

Trade union IG Metall’s boss Berthold Huber said Opel could not be allowed to perish. “We’re not going to accept plant closures or layoffs,” he said. (Reuters)