“He possessed extraordinary political authority and intellectual independence. He only knew Audi’s interests.” Thus wrote Professor Carl Hahn, former Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen AG, in his biographical account of his negotiating partners and opponents. Fritz Böhm, who died in early 2013 shortly before his 93rd birthday, was a great advocate of Audi and the Ingolstadt site. Serving for many years as Chairman of the Works Council, he played a key role in transforming Audi into a sustainably run premium manufacturer.
Fritz Böhm, son of a textile worker, was born in 1920 in Jägerndorf, then in the Sudetenland; he was an exceptional person with both abundant social drive and entrepreneurial instinct. Following his release as a prisoner of war in Russia, in 1950 the qualified businessman secured a job as a warehouse worker at Auto Union in Ingolstadt. For an hourly rate of 77 pfennigs he dragged around tubes for the chassis of the DKW F 89 L delivery van – but only for the first few weeks, after which he used his own money to build a handcart.
Within just one year Böhm’s colleagues had elected him Chairman of the Works Council – in recognition of his exceptional drive, sharp mind and rhetorical talent. Böhm helped to build up the IG Metall trade union from its very modest beginnings and remained Chairman of the General Works Council of Auto Union and AUDI AG until 1985 – with his unshakable self-assurance, assertiveness and unequivocal commitment. “I’m always prepared to take a bloody nose,” was one of his favorite sayings.
Difficulties and conflicts dominated especially the early years. Everyday life for Böhm revolved around discussions about working conditions and pay – as when the Bavarian metalworkers went on strike in 1954, an occurrence in which the Ingolstadt trade unionist played an instrumental role for the first time. But concern for the survival of the Company was always at the back of his mind. “There was a time in the 1950s when, come the 21st of the month, we hadn’t yet got the money together to pay the wages,” recalled Fritz Böhm. “So we on the Works Council set about helping the Company collect the money it was owed.”
A trailblazing decision loomed large in the early part of 1958, shortly after the takeover of Auto Union by Daimler-Benz. A modern plant for the new DKW Junior compact car was to be built in Zons, on the Rhine; the real estate had already been acquired. At that time DKW car models were built in nearby Düsseldorf, while the Ingolstadt plant mainly produced motorcycles, which however had become hopelessly trapped in crisis. But Fritz Böhm pulled every political string within his grasp, and ultimately the State Bank of Bavaria granted a multi-million loan. And so it happened that the new car plant took shape not in Zons, but on Ettinger Strasse, on the northern perimeter of Ingolstadt – the beginnings of the present-day site.
When it came to the crunch, in Böhm’s eyes Audi’s independent role within the Volkswagen Group counted for more than the applause of the works meeting. In the 1980s the Works Council chief had to deal with controversy involving his own colleagues and with the IG Metall head office. Both parties were pressing for Audi to adopt the lucrative internal general collective agreement from Wolfsburg – whereas Böhm successfully argued against it in view of the brand’s difficulties at the time, and advocated keeping to the nationwide collective agreement. “That cost advantage became a key pillar in Audi’s survival,” wrote Professor Carl Hahn in his memoirs.
Fritz Böhm did not own a car or have a driver’s license, but he knew one thing for sure: The Company’s future lay in innovation, in Vorsprung durch Technik. As Chairman of the Works Council he played a major role in transforming Audi into a premium manufacturer and a successful, sustainably run enterprise. In the 1970s and 1980s Böhm worked together closely with Professor Ferdinand Piëch – the relationship between the two men was one of deep trust and open discussion.
Fritz Böhm was on the Supervisory Board of both Auto Union and Audi from 1953 to 1988. He was also an SPD city councilor in Ingolstadt from 1952 to 1963 and from 1978 to 2000. From 1958 Böhm was a member of the Bavarian State Parliament until elected to the Federal Parliament in 1965, where he remained active until 1972. He played a major role in drafting the amended Works Constitution Act and in 1981 received the Distinguished Service Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Böhm was made an honorary citizen by Ingolstadt City Council in 2000.
Fritz Böhm remained intellectually fully alert into old age and would spend six or seven hours a day reading newspapers, magazines and books. There were various distinguished names among those congratulating him on the occasion of his 90th birthday – including Volkswagen Board of Management Chairman Professor Martin Winterkorn and Supervisory Board Chairman Professor Ferdinand Piëch. Shortly before his death Böhm once again toured the Audi production line in Ingolstadt, “You can be proud of the good working conditions you have today,” he declared at the end of the two-hour visit. “That's exactly what we started fighting for all those years ago.”