Germany: “Which side are you on?â€

Does radical rhetoric of some of the trade union leaders against the government’s cuts policy mark a turning point for the struggle against Agenda 2010?

Radical rhetoric ….

Only a week after the SPD’s disastrous election defeat in the European elections, in which the SPD scored its worst election result in the history of the federal republic and lost two thirds of their votes in comparison to the national elections of 2002, some of the trade union leaders have come out sharply against the government.

Frank Bsirske, chair of Germany’s biggest union ver.di (united services union), called the government’s policy an “impoverishment programme for the unemployed” and accused Schröder of having failed completely “in his promises to create jobs and to cut down unemployment”. Wiesehegel, chair of the building, agriculture and environment union (IG Bau) said that the SPD has betrayed its principles.

In an interview with the German daily “Die Welt”, Peters, chair of the metal workers’ union (IG Metall) criticised the SPD for increasing social injustice.” We expect the SPD to regain clarity about the wishes and interests of the wider layers within society instead of giving in to the wants and needs of the employers.” “At the moment there is nobody in the unions – and I really do not know of anyone – who is ready to support the SPD at the present stage”. This is how Michael Sommer, chair of the DGB (German trade union federation), sums up the present relations between the SPD and the trade unions. This comment comes only shortly after Sommer had indicated his willingness to compromise with the government on the issue of Agenda 2010.

Certainly, this radical rhetoric by trade union leaders against the cuts policy implemented by the SPD led government is a reflection of the growing outrage within the working class in Germany and an attempt to satisfy the membership of the unions.

It is not only the SPD which has suffered from election defeats and loss in membership, ver.di alone lost 150,000 members in the first quarter of 2004.

… is not enough

However, in practice, the current trade union leadership is not prepared to organise a decisive struggle against the government’s attacks and the increasing attacks by the bosses in the work places. On April 3, following a wave of protests, walk outs and demonstrations at the end of 2003 and in early 2004, the trade unions came under pressure from below and mobilised a total of 500,000 people in three different cities. This greatly reflected the potential to step up the protests. But yet again, the trade union bureaucracy did not provide the next steps to successfully fight Agenda 2010. It does not even cross their mind to fully reject Schröder’s Agenda but to “trim the sharpest edges of Agenda 2010” as Michael Sommer put it. In that sense it is not a surprise that the trade unions are now focussing on a petition campaign inside the work places as a means of protest.

This is disgraceful. It is a way of bottling the anger of the hundreds of thousands of workers and unemployed who will face drastic cuts in their living standards in the near future. The trade union leaders are backing down at a time where Schröder- even after the election defeat- has made it crystal clear that there is going to be no change in the government’s policy.

They are backing down at a time where more protests including strike actions are needed since Agenda 2010 is not the only attack workers are facing.

The Siemens model leads the way….

Siemens, one of Germany’s biggest corporations with a work force of 170,000 has just won a major victory against the workers and the trade unions. Siemens had threatened to sack 4,000 people and move part of their mobile phone production to Hungary. Without launching a serious struggle in defence of all jobs and in defence of wages and conditions, the trade union leaders have given into the blackmail of the employers. Less than a week after organising a national “Action Day” against Siemens’ plans to move 5,000 jobs out of Germany the IG Metall leaders have agreed to wage cuts in an attempt to save jobs. This two year deal is based upon an unpaid increase in the working week from 35 to 40 hours for 4,000 Siemens workers. In addition they accepted the abolition of Christmas and holiday money in two of the company’s plants and their replacement by profit related bonuses.

According to one of the affected workers, the deal means a 15% wage cut and will probably mean that a lot of workers will no longer be able to go on holidays. There is also only little hope that the guarantee given by the employers in return to keep jobs untouched for the next two years will mean that no other attacks will be implemented. Furthermore there is no jobs guarantee after 2006.

Both, the employers and the trade union leaders are insisting that they have solved a problem that is strictly related to Siemens and is not a “blueprint” (Peters) or an example to follow for other companies.

Reality, however tells a different story. Since March this year, 40 companies have agreed deals on longer working hours on the basis of IG Metall’s latest collective bargaining agreement. Following the Siemens example, another 100 went into negotiations to increase the working week to 40 hours for no extra pay at all.

The IG Metall which in the past had always argued that wage cuts will not create more jobs and has led week long strike action for the introduction of the 35 hour week without loss of pay in the 1980’s has given up one of its fundamental principles. In essence, the “Siemens model” manifests what has been an ongoing trend. A survey has revealed that the average working week for German workers is 39.9 hours. This has been possible through continuous concessions through the back door by the trade union leaders. In other cases, the unions have agreed to a reduction in the working week with loss in pay, trying to serve the bosses’ need for more flexibility.

… and the public sector follows.

In the public sector, discussions have started to increase the working week from 38.5 to 40 hours with no pay rise in western Germany. Klaus von Dohnanyi (SPD), an advisor to the government, has indicated that the working week should be increased to 42 hours in eastern Germany. The East German working class is already bearing most of the brunt of the capitalist crisis. Already, they are working longer hours and earn less wages. At 18%, unemployment is twice as high as in the West.

Dohnanyi’s comments follow a survey that for the productivity of the East to reach 90% of the West’s by 2020, the economy in East Germany would have to grow by 4-5 per cent a year. Currently, Germany’s economy is in a period of stagnation. Politicians as well as trade union leaders seem to have abandoned the idea that the working class in the East will see the same living standards as in the West. In fact, the exact opposite development is taking place at the present time.

Attacks on the unions

The radical rhetoric of the trade union leaders has not been left unanswered. All the established parties and much of the media have seized the opportunity to launch an attack against the unions in general. Hans Eichel, the finance minister commented that the government should no longer put up with the interference of the trade unions as “their officials are not in touch with reality”. The chair of the Green party warned the trade unions to not denounce the “reforms” of the government. The leader of the FDP liberal party offered his support to the government in taking on the unions. Angela Merkel, chair of the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union) sees the 40 hour week as a model to follow.

It becomes more and more obvious that the government as well as the opposition parties are willing to take on the trade unions in order to implement the cuts in the welfare system and in the work places. They see the unions as a major obstacle to implement the cuts at the pace they need them.

However, if the trade union bureaucracy continues to compromise with the bosses and the government in the way they have done in the past, they will end up isolating themselves from their own members.

A lot of rank and file members are discontent with their leaders and, as a result, leave the unions. Even though this is understandable from the point of view of rank and file members who feel that their subs are being wasted on high paid trade union officials who do little or nothing to defend their living standards, workers still need to be organised to fight back.

It is vital to transform the trade unions into fighting and militant organisations of the working class. It is necessary to step up the process of building oppositional structures inside the unions in order to put pressure on the current trade union leadership to organise resistance and to challenge today’s leadership by putting forward alternative candidates who are prepared to struggle and reject the privileged lifestyle of today’s leaders.

New political representation needed

Some sections of the trade union bureaucracy argue for a “de-escalation” of the friction between the trade unions and the government in order to keep the SPD in office after the national elections scheduled for 2006. They put forward the argument that a conservative government would introduce even worse cuts.

They should be reminded that in terms of the volume of cuts financially, the SPD’s Agenda 2010 stands out as the most brutal compared with all previous attempts by previous governments to attack the working class. And even if some of the so-called left inside the SPD now demand some “social corrections” to Agenda 2010, this is not more than just hot air. The SPD has long ago stopped being a workers’ party, something that has been seen in the almost total lack of serious opposition to Agenda 2010 from within its ranks. The massive drop in SPD support shows how most of the population has drawn that conclusion at the ballot box.

It is time that the trade unions draw the same conclusion and call for a new workers’ party.

As we have reported in previous articles, there are discussions taking place in Germany to set up a new left party. The two initiatives which have received widespread media coverage on the question of building a new party will form a united association called “Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice” on July 3. For various reasons (see other articles on Germany), the future development of this new formation remains open. Nevertheless, there is great sympathy amongst the German working class to set up a new party that defends the interests of ordinary workers, young people, pensioners and the unemployed. In a recent opinion poll, 6 % have indicated that they would certainly vote for a new party, 32% indicated that they would maybe vote for it. As it seems more likely that a new party will be formed its potential is increasing, in March, only 24% had indicated that they would maybe vote for a new left party.

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July 2004