It is a tradition for the German chancellor and the leaders of the political parties to give a speech to the national congresses of the big trade unions.
Usually this was used in the past by the trade union and Social Democratic Party (SPD) tops to show that there is still something in common between the unions and the SPD. This week’s congress of the metal workers’ union IG Metall saw something different. Schröder was welcomed by protest actions of the delegates with some of the banners calling for strikes against the government’s policies.
One called the SPD the “party demolishing social policy”. Others showed placards saying "This policy deserves no applause". Schröder acted in a way that reflects the new approach by the government and the ruling class. From their point of view the times of social partnership and compromises between the classes are over.
The crisis of German and international capitalism has led them to the conclusion that only through sharp attacks on the living standards and the rights of the working class can profitability be restored. Consequently Schröder said that he did not come to convince the trade unionists and provoked them by statements like "Don’t stretch yourself too far. I am used to little applause."
The background to this confrontation at the metal workers’ congress is a three-year-long period of economic stagnation and recession which has lead to growing mass unemployment and a huge state debt. Germany is unable to meet the EU’s Maastricht criteria regarding its indebtedness and budget deficit. Mass unemployment stands at officially 4.2 million (10.1%) with real figures being much higher. Most local councils are in a catastrophic financial crisis. But public indebtedness is only one side of the coin. The other side is the growing wealth of the capitalist class. Big corporations like Daimler Chrysler (6.9 billion euro profit), Deutsche Bank (3.5. bn euro) or BMW (3.3 bn euro) make huge profits but do not pay any taxes. Still the government is cutting the taxation for the rich.
On the other side the government is pursuing a sharp programme – called Agenda 2010 – against workers and unemployed. The so-called welfare state is about to be dismantled. Attacks on unemployment benefit, the health service, the statutory protection against redundancy in small companies, pensions, working hours, wages and holiday/Christmas pay for public sector employees mark a new quality of a capitalist offensive against the masses. While the Schröder government is struggling to implement its agenda the employers’ associations and the conservative Christian Democratic opposition are calling for even more attacks. They want to attack the general industry-wide pay agreements and the industrial relations legislation including the current right to strike existing in Germany.
These attacks will fundamentally change the realities of life for the working class. A growing number of unemployed will quickly enter poverty. For many the so-called "reforms" will mean a loss of up to 50 per cent of their benefits. At the same time the number of working poor will increase as one of the main objectives of this policy is to create a "low-pay sector" in the German economy. This will not "only" mean more unemployed and a greater number of poor. It will change the whole outlook of society. Brutalisation, growing criminality, growth of both physical and psychological illnesses, a growing suicide rate etc. will be the consequences.
Crisis of the SPD
This anti-working-class-policy has led to a deep crisis for the SPD. More than 30,000 members have left the party this year (100,000 since Schröder formed the government in 1998) and the membership has gone down to around 650,000 from 900,000 in 1991. In opinion polls the party stands at 25 per cent, an historical low. A small group of six so-called "left" MP’s had indicated that they might vote against the reforms in parliament. This would have meant that the SPD/Green-coalition would not have had a majority of its own in parliament and could have meant the end for the Schröder government. With a mixture of threats of resignation by Schröder and a few minor concessions the group of "deviants" were brought back into line. All but one of them voted for this anti-working-class legislation on October 17th. This reflects the character of the "rest of the left" amongst SPD MP’s and the need for a new working class party in Germany.
Why then has Germany not joined the league of Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Greece and other European countries which have seen mass and even general strikes against similar attacks? The reason is because the leadership of the trade unions is a blockade for a fight back. They had declared in spring that they were not going to organise any more public protests against the "Agenda 2010" but would try to achieve something via negotiations with the political parties and the government. The trade union leadership is closely linked to the SPD and is not prepared to mobilise against it. The bureaucrats say this would only increase the danger of a change of government to the conservative Christian Democrats which would implement a worse policy for workers. But pressure is building up in the unions for actions against the government’s attacks. A growing number of trade unionists understand that there is no reason to protect the SPD. And they understand that if a mass movement would stop the SPD-led government, any other government would have huge problems to implement anti-working-class legislations. Mobilisations and even strike actions have started on a local and regional level.
This pressure from below was reflected in the speech of the new IG Metall chair Jürgen Peters on the union’s congress. He set a new tone towards the governing SPD by saying: "If the social democracy continues on that course, she will for the time being not be a political partner for us." At the same time he does not draw all the necessary conclusions from that statement. Wrongly he still hopes for "those forces in the SPD who stand for a social society and for jobs to gain the upper hand in the party". These are false hopes as the SPD has completely joined the capitalist camp. The trade unions should break with this rotten party and begin to build a new workers’ party with a socialist programme. This is what socialists are arguing for inside the unions.
While there were little mobilisations of the working class when the plans of the government were announced in spring this has rapidly changed after the end of the summer break. A new dynamic of protests by workers has begun in the past few weeks. In the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia 45,000 state employees marched against attacks on their working hours and Christmas and holiday pay. In the city of Bremen 3,500 public sector workers marched. More than 15,000 metal workers in southern Germany took strike action against attacks on the general industry-wide pay agreements and industrial relations legislation.
In the federal state of Hessen the trade unions are mobilising against a cuts programme of the Christian Democratic federal state government, which is officially described as the “biggest cuts package in Hessen’s history”. The state government has announced redundancies, a lengthening of the working hours for public sector employees and teachers, a complete cut of holiday pay and a reduction of Christmas pay. The teachers’ union has called strike action in Hessen for November 18th. In the north Hessen city of Kassel members of Socialist Alternative (SAV – German section of the CWI) and International Socialist Resistance have initiated a youth strike of 1,500 mainly young apprentices on October 17th. The trade union of policemen is threatening a general strike in Hessen. Socialists in the public sector union ver.di are calling for an all-out strike on November 18th, alongside the teachers, against the plans of both the Hessen government and the federal Schröder government.
The question of the general strike more and more is raised amongst trade unionists. This is despite the fact that the general strike has no tradition in the post-war workers’ movement in Germany and that the trade union bureaucracy has always insisted that "political strikes" are not legal and therefore ruled out. But a number of motions put forward to the metal workers’ congress demanded general strike action. This is a reflection of the beginning of a revival of the trade unions from below. This is still at its early stages but clearly visible. The organised left in the trade unions is still small and fairly unorganised. But new local groups of left-wing trade unionists coming together for rank-and-file coordination and opposition to the trade unions tops are emerging in a number of cities.
Demonstration on November 1st
An important step is the call for a national demonstration in Berlin against the government’s attacks on November 1st. The SAV has consistently argued for such a demonstration as a first step to strikes and a one-day general strike for a number of months. After spring it became clear that the trade union leaders were boycotting and sabotaging any resistance against the government’s plans. We then decided to raise the idea of a demonstration from below in the structures of the trade union left, the unemployed movement, and the anti-globalisation movement. Together with others we then initiated an activists’ conference in August where SAV members played a key role in getting agreement to issue a call for such a demonstration.
Despite the fact that trade union leaders are arguing against such a demo the response is very good. Regional and local trade union organisations from ver.di, IG Metall and the teachers, are supporting the demonstration and are mobilising for it. International Socialist Resistance has initiated a coalition of youth groups to form a youth contingent on the demo which is supported by the public sector union youth and others. Well over 100 busses are already booked to come to Berlin on that day. Left-wing delegates to the trade union congresses of the metal workers and of the ver.di are moving motions in support of the demo. Irrespective of the size of the demonstration (which cannot be estimated at the moment) the fact that the blockade of the trade union bureaucracy was broken is a big success.
All the ingredients are there for a social explosion in Germany: the attacks on the working class, the polarisation between the classes, the arrogance of the capitalist class, the anger and frustration of the masses, a growing preparedness to fight. The only thing which is missing – and which is delaying such an explosion – is the lack of a militant leadership of the working class. Despite this lack the pressure from below will lead to huge struggles in the coming period as it did in other countries of Europe in the recent months and years.