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Opel cuts won't be as severe as Ford's, union says

By Christiaan Hetzner and Jan Schwartz

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Ford's decision to close three factories and cull 5,700 jobs in Europe does not herald more severe downsizing at General Motors' Opel unit, which has already made big cutbacks, Opel's top labour leader said.

Mass market manufacturers such as Ford, Opel, Peugeot and Fiat all expect heavy losses in Europe over the next couple of years as painful economic reforms send demand plummeting to levels not seen since in nearly 20 years.

But Opel works council Chairman Wolfgang Schaefer-Klug said he aims to reach a deal over the future size of its German workforce with management before Christmas and did not believe the talks would spread into discussions on other major closures.

"I don't expect that it will come to some huge number of job cuts as part of the restructuring, rather the opposite, much fewer (than many believe)," Schaefer-Klug told Reuters.

"Only Bochum is up for discussion according to GM, no other Opel plants, whether in Germany or elsewhere in Europe."

While he reiterated opposition to Opel's plans to close its plant in the western German city of Bochum, he added his top priority was to ensure workers have secure jobs come 2017, when the site could be shuttered, whether at Opel or not.

The elected workforce official is negotiating with Opel and trade union IG Metall to extend a blanket job guarantee for the company's four German sites by two years to the end of 2016.

DRASTIC ACTION

If market conditions worsen, Schaefer-Klug said, Opel could manage by further using "Kurzarbeit", a government-subsidized short-time work scheme that was used widely by German industry during the global financial crisis in 2009.

One idea would be to bring production of the Opel Mokka to Europe at the cost of jobs in Korea, where it is assembled now.

"The Mokka would fill an important gap in our Spanish plant, and help to improve utilization there ... This volume was never supposed to go to Korea in the first place," he said.

The Opel labour leader said he did not believe Ford's move would put pressure on Opel to take more drastic action, dismissing reports that GM is falling behind its U.S. peer in tackling overcapacity in Europe.

Opel in recent years has shut a factory in Belgium, its commercial van plant in Portugal and car manufacturing in its Luton, England facility, while Ford had not closed any vehicle assembly plants since Dagenham in 2002, he said.

The GM brand has already cut into its fixed cost base so deeply that Opel employs fewer people in its German market than Ford. The U.S. rival has already given a guarantee not to lay off any German workers through 2016.

"Opel has taken out 600,000 cars in capacity and cut 12,000 workers since 2006. Additionally, two engine plants were closed and several lines were taken out in European sites, reducing capacity even more," Schaefer-Klug said.

"There is no manufacturer that took out as much capacity as Opel has."

(Editing by David Holmes)

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