Sex and money are known as the world’s biggest motivators. Volkswagen used sex to make its shop stewards cooperative. This ended in a huge scandal. Opel is using money instead. “The system is the same as formerly at Volkswagen – only without sex,” writes Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a long article about “illegal bonus payments” to members of Opel’s works council.
Under German law, the works council, consisting of elected representatives of the employees, is a powerful institution. Without its cooperation, a company grinds to a halt. The works council has to agree to hirings and firings. In a large company, half of the board members are representatives of the employees. At Opel, Über-shop steward Klaus Franz is the deputy chairman of the supervisory board. Great is the temptation to make the works council pliant.
According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, works council member receive up to $2,000 monthly, in addition to their normal pay. The “normal” pay of a shop steward can rise quickly. It also can drop after a failed re-election. The bonus payment for Klaus Franz is a secret.
Opel says the system is kosher. Law professors cited by the FAZ call it a “blatant violation of the law which requires that membership in the works council must be unsalaried.” If the payments are illegal, then they may not be booked as business expenses. The matter could also have tax implications.
“Commonly, what we have here would be called bribes,” says the FAZ.
Usually, these revelations are not the works of enterprising journalists. When the VW scandal broke, it was two months before a general election. The incumbent was Gerhard Schröder, a social democrat. He had been premier of Lower Saxony before, had been a member of VW’s supervisory board. The social democrats and the unions traditionally are close. Hurt the unions, hurt the social democrats. A few days after the first bits of the scandal became known, the New York Times wrote: “VW affair may hurt Schröder at the polls.” The unions were discredited, the social democrats lost heavily.
The current Merkel government is still holding a grudge against GM which had reneged on the Opel deal. The next elections won’t be until 2013.