HAMBURG, Germany -- More than 30,000 workers at Volkswagen's Wolfsburg plant halted output for two hours on Wednesday in protest of the carmaker's cost cut plans, union officials said on the eve of crucial wage talks.
The walkout at VW's main factory fuelled tension ahead of negotiations on Thursday that union leaders say must produce a deal or else they will call warning strikes starting next week.
Management at Europe's biggest carmaker has also taken a hard line, threatening sweeping job cuts if workers don't agree to help slash labor bills in a bid to boost competitiveness.
At a protest meeting in Wolfsburg, VW works council head Klaus Volkert said staff would stick up for themselves but added that a fight with management would serve no one.
Volkswagen, which will also report third-quarter results on Thursday, wants the 103,000 workers at its six western German factories to accept a two-year wage freeze and other steps to make the workforce more flexible and efficient.
The IG Metall metalworkers union is calling for extensive job guarantees. It has lowered its initial wage hike demand of 4 percent, but Volkswagen rejected the union's latest offer.
Volkert told protesters that job security had to be top priority amid tough car markets, intense competition and rising pressure on prices.
Citing rival General Motors' plans to cut as many as 10,000 jobs in high-cost Germany, Volkert said workers had to play a constructive role in shaping carmakers' future "because a company with constant red ink secures no jobs either".
But he also warned management it was going too far by trying to curb an in-house contract that pays VW staff more than other German metalworkers earn.
Thousands of VW workers plan to travel in an auto convoy to Hanover on Thursday to protest outside the venue for a fifth round of wage talks. Experts expect progress in the round but think that a breakthrough is unlikely.
In a newspaper interview, Volkswagen's personnel chief warned its German employees of dramatic job cuts should staff reject plans to reduce labor costs considerably.
"If we don't push through our cost (cutting) concept, then the volume of employees in Germany will shrink dramatically in the coming years," Peter Hartz told German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
In early September, VW finance chief Hans Dieter Poetsch made a veiled threat that more than 30,000 jobs were at risk if the company failed to slash labor costs by 30 percent by 2011.