ANTWERP/BRUSSELS - Belgian Opel workers learned the Antwerp plant will close this year, with the loss of 2,600 jobs, as U.S. car maker General Motors said it would make labor and capacity cuts at all its European sites.
GM had warned for weeks that the Antwerp plant was in jeopardy as the company moved to chop around 8,300 jobs and cut capacity in Europe by a fifth. Company sources told Reuters on Wednesday that the factory was doomed.
We remain open until June 2010. Afterwards we will have to see what the possibilities might be, said Jan Van Aggelpoel, for the ACV union. Otherwise, it's the end.
Opel said in a statement that it planned to close the plant in the course of the year 2010.
Opel workers crowded into a room at the plant on Thursday morning to learn their fate. Those that emerged expressed a mixture of fury and despair.
Ahmed Teghmas, a production worker for 18 years, told Reuters he and fellow workers were angry, saying management had only told unions of a possible closure.
They are playing a game in order to keep production going, he said.
Nearby, worker Eddy Quirynen said: I'm 55 years old. What is possible for me now?
The regional government of Flanders, where the northern port city of Antwerp is located, was to hold a meeting about Opel on Thursday afternoon. It had pledged 500 million euros ($710.2 million) in loan guarantees and a sale and leaseback deal if Opel Antwerp's future was secured.
GM, which lost $88 billion between 2005 and 2008, went bankrupt alongside rival Chrysler Group LLC and was bailed out by the U.S. government in return for a pledge to restructure.
The automaker is selling its Saturn and Hummer brands, closing Pontiac, and said this month it would move ahead with winding down Sweden-based Saab, although bidders for the brand have said they had not yet given up.
It still needs 2.7 billion euros in state aid from European governments and said on Thursday it had made good progress in talks.
Opel Chief Executive Nick Reilly said there were no other plans for factory closures at the moment and confirmed that about 4,000 of the job cuts would be made in Germany.
Opel said that it expected car sales in western Europe to shrink by 1.5 million in 2010, and be around 4 million lower than in 2007. The market would not return to this peak level any time soon, if ever, the company said.
We have to take a plant out and unfortunately it's Antwerp, Reilly told a news conference near Brussels.
Unfortunately you have got to face reality. We are losing money and we have to do something about it, Reilly said.
In order to keep Opel going and have a sustainable future we have to take some of these types of decisions. We're not unique in this at all, he added
Unions have repeatedly argued that closing Antwerp and letting go of staff there would also be costly and drain liquidity that could otherwise be used to invest in new models.
Reilly said on Thursday he could not predict the cost of closing Antwerp without talking to labor representatives and added he did not anticipate industrial action as a result of the decision.
Opel's European works council said it would not make any wage concessions, following the decision.
Antwerp would not be the first Belgian car plant to shut. It revives painful memories of Renault's closure of its Vilvoorde factory on the edge of Brussels in 1997.
Opel Antwerp would be the first major European assembly plant to close since Peugeot in Ryton, Britain, and Opel Azambuja in Portugal, both announced in 2006.
And it may not be the last.
Italy's Fiat, which stepped in to help rescue Chrysler, is also cutting back. Its intention to close a plant in Sicily next year has prompted plans for a nationwide walkout in protest on February 3.
In addition, French automaker Renault has come under pressure from the French state, a 15.01 percent shareholder, to center production of its new Clio model, due out in 2013, in France rather than in Turkey to protect French jobs.
(Additional reporting by Sangeeta Shastry in Antwerp, and Christiaan Hetzner and Mike Shields in Frankfurt; writing by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Dale Hudson and Karen Foster)