Germany's Opel workers look to better future with Peugeot

Benoit TOUSSAINT
 

Under a tall brick tower marked with carmaker Opel's "Blitz" (lightning) logo, workers at the historic German firm's headquarters are cautiously optimistic about its takeover by France's PSA.

"Instinctively, I feel that it's rather positive. It's a new start," said 53-year-old Fritz Lagraffe outside the steel sheds at the Ruesselsheim plant, just across the Main river from Germany's financial capital Frankfurt.

There was little sign of disturbance to the daily routine among the clusters of workers gathered under the grey sky outside the massive works, after Peugeot (Other OTC: PUGOF - news) and Citroen parent PSA announced Monday it is buying the Opel and Vauxhall brands from General Motors (NYSE: GM - news) for 1.3 billion euros ($1.38 billion).

The end of Opel's 88-year ownership by United States giant General Motors will see it integrated into the French carmaker to form a new "European champion" second only to Germany's Volkswagen (IOB: 0P6N.IL - news) on the continent, executives say.

Works council officials called employees to a meeting on the merger in one of the gigantic production halls on the site this morning.

"Opel's brand will continue to be reinforced, otherwise they wouldn't have bought the business," Lagraffe, who works in marketing, said.

"I'm not too worried, I see the glass as half full," the elegantly-dressed man with round glasses and salt-and-pepper hair continued.

An Opel designer who asked to remain anonymous told AFP that: "Even (Taiwan OTC: 6436.TWO - news) this morning, some people didn't believe the PSA buyout would go ahead, but overall people are mostly happy with the news.

"We're hoping to finally have new opportunities and clear vision under PSA's management."

- Fears for jobs -

Other Opel employees are less sanguine about the future of the carmaker, which has failed to turn a profit since the turn of the millenium and became a money pit for GM.

But few are willing to talk to the gaggle of journalists outside the entrances to the works.

"Of course there are worries" that new owners PSA could bring in cost-cutting measures and slash jobs in the coming years, one man in dark work trousers and a fluorescent vest said.

"I can't be happy, but I can't see it in a negative light either. Given that I'm 58 it might be a good thing, but younger people will have to see what comes of it," said another worker in a blue work coverall who refused to give his name.

"Our wage agreements run until 2018, and everything else still has to be negotiated before the deal is finally signed," the worker added, before joining the long lines of employees on their way back to work.

- New (KOSDAQ: 160550.KQ - news) possibilities -

Adam Opel founded his firm in 1862, and it started out producing sewing machines and bicycles before taking the leap into the automobile industry in 1899.

Taken over by GM in 1929, the company was Germany's largest carmaker for decades before being surpassed by Volkswagen.

Since 1999, loss-making Opel and Britain's Vauxhall, which sells the same models in the island nation under its own brand, have cost their US parent company GM some $15 billion.

"It was never easy to work for GM, you couldn't say that Opel was high on their list of priorities. With PSA we're hoping for a more balanced relationship, Opel could really get back into shape very quickly if it's given the means," the anonymous Opel designer said.

"The general feeling is that this development is more of a chance to get the machine running again. There are still some worries among the workers on the productions lines -- it's likely to be a bit more complicated for them."

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