The Continentalers: Self-Image and the Interests of the Workforce Over the Course of Time
It’s the employees who contribute most decisively to the success of any business enterprise: their performance and commitment, day in and day out, are what develops a future-focused company and ensures that it remains continuously competitive in the long term. And it is precisely this key role that the workforce at Continental has consistently fulfilled.
Although the interests of management and employees have mostly coincided over the past 150 years, disputes have also arisen from time to time. Rarely, however, did they lead to open protests and strikes. This is because Continental’s management has succeeded, through a company social policy as well as measures to promote a sense of identification and loyalty, in bringing the workforce to identify with Continental – and this against the background of social upheavals of an increasingly diverse nature.
The corporate cultural values lived over the years, such as solidarity and collegiality, have likewise contributed significantly to this forming of a collective identity among the proud “Continentalers”. As a result, Continental has come to play an essential part in the lives of its employees, and does so even beyond their working world.
Continental recognized the potential of female employees at an early stage, so the share of women making up the company’s workforce has always been comparatively large – already accounting for 38.4 percent by 1899. Nearly 100 women were employed in the ball making and ball painting hall, and 419 in the tire halls, where they numbered over half of the workers deployed there. Bicycle tire manufacturing was almost exclusively a female domain.
Equally progressive was the early introduction of a corporate social policy at Continental. Above all, it was intended to help instill an interest in long-term loyalty to the company among the largely unskilled employees in view of the initially unfamiliar, hard and dangerous working conditions.
The first of these measures was the introduction of a health insurance fund in 1872. This was followed by a pension and disability insurance fund in 1882 and, three years later, life insurance for employees who had served the company for ten years or more. In addition, workers’ housing was also made available to employees from 1892 onwards. Continental played a pioneering role even beyond the rubber industry not only by implementing this company social policy, but also because of the sheer scope of the measures introduced.
As a result, Continental was already known before the First World War for its paternalistic welfare and social policy that combined discipline and social welfare, and was directed by Siegmund Seligmann as a father figure at the head of the company.
Besides employee benefits, Continental also focused on streamlining its production processes. The company worked continuously to improve working conditions for its workforce by introducing flexible working hours and good pay. Moreover, various initiatives were launched for the professional training of employees in order to be able to respond rapidly to increased qualification requirements in certain areas of work.
These initiatives all met with a very positive response among the workers. Consequentially, in this period as a whole there was no significant radicalization or class struggle within the company. Continental was also perceived from the outside as an attractive employer. The number of employees increased from about 600 in the 1890s to 11,590 in 1913.
In the period after the First World War, there were many profound changes in the structure of the workforce, which clearly influenced the working climate.
Shortly after the end of the war already, Continental switched production to assembly line work based on the model in the United States. The modernization of working methods was also reflected in the administration, where typewriters and dictaphones revolutionized business correspondence.
What’s more, an advocacy group for the company’s wage-earning workers and salaried employees was introduced. It did not shy away from tough conflicts with the company management and the Executive Board chaired by Willy Tischbein. The main bone of contention was the Bedaux system – a highly modern rationalization system at the time, these streamlining efforts closely linked work performance, pay and work processes.
Implementation of the Bedaux system was expected to last until the early 1930s. However, the positive effects of the system in terms of cost reductions, savings and productivity increases very quickly became apparent. A significant contribution to this success was made by introducing the suggestions-for-improvement scheme in September 1930. The first submission at Continental proposed an improvement to the blow-off device of the hose machine, and was rewarded with 10 Reichsmarks. The period after the Nazis came to power in 1933 was also characterized by the many incentives aimed at fostering loyal identification with the company, including professional competitions, the flag of the German Labor Front (the labor organization under the Nazi party) as well as company meetings and appeals. In the spirit of the Nazi community ideology, these measures led to a cultural homogenization of the workforce.
After the end of World War II, works councils, advocacy groups and activities of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) continued to promote employee participation. Nevertheless, personnel policy at that time was in no way comparable to the modern measures introduced by Continental in the 19th century.
Added to this was the major problem of a shortage of labor that almost all companies had to contend with in the post-war years. “Guest workers” from other countries who joined Continental starting in 1962 helped address this problem, and brought greater diversity to the workforce during the years of Germany’s post-war Economic Miracle.
The relocation measures from 1960 onwards also harbored potential for conflict. The new production plants in Dannenberg, Northeim and Sarreguemines (the latter in France) were the first to be impacted by these measures. They were followed by a dismantling of the bonus payment system and reductions in social benefits. The economic crisis between 1970 and 1982 exacerbated the conflicts between employee representatives and the Executive Board, leading in 1976 to the first major strike since 1924. In the wake of this crisis, almost half of the workforce left the company. The remaining employees had to accept drastic wage cuts, which thus ensured the survival of the company. Radical restructuring of the production sites followed at the end of the 1980s, with closures and relocations of production to Eastern Europe.
Other, major changes were simultaneously afoot in the working world, leading to introduction of Japanese methods and concepts, especially in manufacturing. In 1978, a pilot project brought new vitality into the roles of female workers at Continental: From that point onward, women were trained to fill technical occupations. The Uniroyal takeover triggered a surge in internationalization of the workforce in the subsequent years. Many new employees shaped by differing corporate cultures joined the workforce. The takeover of General Tire in 1987 marked the first time that employees of German nationality accounted for less than half of the workforce.
In order to overcome the growing cultural and linguistic differences, seven “Basics” were established in 1987 as the cornerstone of a new corporate culture, the aim being to merge and harmonize cultural and linguistic differences, different ways of thinking and long-standing corporate traditions. These efforts also sought to enhance employee awareness of being part of a globally operating group.
At any given time, one of the biggest challenges facing Continental management has always been to create a communal sense of belonging among the heterogeneous workforce of wage-earning workers and salaried employees. The goal has consistently been for the entire workforce to be able to identify with the company and its products, and to feel part of this whole.
Large companies primarily rely on communicating their company culture and values for this purpose – and Continental, with its current workforce of some 235,000 employees at hundreds of locations around the world, also pursues this approach. Shaping a distinct sense of shared identity among the company employees thus remains a task for the future that must be continuously worked on. Managers and staff must therefore, time and time again, find renewed agreement on their common self-understanding – their self-image – in order to proudly feel and see themselves as “Continentalers”, and as part of this long, great history.