Germany: 35,000 public sector workers on strike

Stuttgart’s public sector warning strike

Below is a report of the first day of the current public sector strike which now involves 35,000 workers on strike in 9 of the 16 federal states in Germany. These are biggest strikes in the public sector since 1992, although the union leaders have only called out selected groups of workers.

There are actually three separate disputes taking place. Firstly there is the union demand that the regional states sign up to the wage agreement which the federal and local employees agreed to last year; this was a bad deal for many workers but nevertheless the federal states don’t want to sign it because they want to be able to easily increase working time. The second aspect of these strikes is against those local authorities that are now attempting to increase the working week from 38.5 to 40 hours with no extra pay. The third sector involved in strike actions are university hospital workers. These strikes have been generally supported in strike ballots by over 90% of workers and public opinion polls show support of around 60% amongst the general population.

35,000 public sector workers on strike

20 000 public sector employees in the state of Baden-Württemberg participated in a warning strike on 5 December. That was the dress rehearsal. February 6th saw the premiere of an indefinite strike against the extension of working hours in being played out in southwest Germany.

According to media reports, a total of 10,000 local authority employees in Baden-Württemberg took part in work stoppages on the first day of the strike. In the state capital Stuttgart, the participation was by far the highest. 5,000 striking employees took part in a demonstration through the city centre and a rally in front of the town hall. Not a single parking ticket was written, no rubbish was collected and the preparations for this summer’s football World Cup were put on hold. In the nurseries and the city hospital, only emergency cover was provided. There was only a limited snow clearing service on the roads. Rubbish collectors, nursery employees, nurses, administrative staff, cleaning women and workers from all across the public sector went on strike. A large number of apprentices also took part.

“We know that for this hospital alone an extension of the working week to 40 hours would cost 160 jobs” explained Dieter Janssen, SAV member and strike leader at the Bürger hospital in Stuttgart, addressing a strike meeting: “and we’re not just striking for our jobs, but also for good working conditions, so that we can assure a good quality of care for our patients.”

After a strike meeting, 120 employees of the Bürger hospital formed a demonstration across the Heilbronner Strasse to the Katherinen hospital, where a short rally of all hospital employees was held.

On the way, other workers waved from the windows of the office buildings. Not even the bosses of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce could prevent their employees from showing their solidarity from the windows of their offices. “38.5 hours is the compromise – anything else is shit!” was the slogan resounding from the megaphone. At the glass palace of the Baden-Württemberg Bank, somebody opened a window and waved out a flag of the public sector union ver.di. Truck and car drives blew their horns to express solidarity.

Speaking in front of the Katherinen hospital, shop steward Volker Moerbe reported that all operating theatres were at a standstill and only emergencies were being taken. In the eye clinic it was the same story, although the consultant had called in patients despite the strike only emergency cases were dealt with. Workers of all trades participate in the strike. Several speakers pointed out that the significantly increased workload made any further extension of working hours unacceptable. Ver.di secretary Christina Ernst said: “It is incomprehensible that a nurse is expected to work 40 hours while her daughter is unemployed and her granddaughter can’t get an apprenticeship.”

After the strike meeting in front of the Katherinen hospital, the hospital employees marched together with several thousand colleagues from other local authority bodies through the city centre to the town hall. There they were addressed by the district chairperson of ver.di, Sybille Stamm: “The whole country is looking to us today, because we are the vanguard and we have to show that we are able to fight, to strike and to enforce our demands. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” Rubbish collectors chanted “(Mayor) Schuster out, Schuster out!”

The employers claim that the 18 minutes per day which the extension of working hours would mean were nothing much was repeatedly contradicted: “18 minutes add up to 10 free days a year, which adds up to two extra years over whole working life, and when the pension age is raised to 67, then we’ll be working 4 years longer. And if the employers think that’s nothing much then they can just as easily do without the extension of the working week” said Thomas Boehm, ver.di chairman in Stuttgart and chief shop steward at the City Hospital, and he continued: “It is claimed we have secure jobs and therefore we have no right to be on strike. In the last 10 years, more than 100 000 jobs were lost in the public sector. In the hospital and in many other public institutions, many colleagues are only being hired on short term contracts. Is that what one regards as secure jobs? It is said that the strike is excessive, because the population is suffering as a result of it, because some operations or treatments may be delayed. Do you know how long people have to wait for a knee or hip operation in Stuttgart? People routinely wait half a year or 9 months for an operation. Do you know how long people have to wait to get a nursery place? All of this doesn’t bother the politicians. But when we public sector workers go on strike for one day, the cry crocodile tears and say that patient care is being endangered. The thief is crying ‘stop thief’. We will not accept that.”

On banners and in speeches, the call for a reduction of working hours was made. However in conversations, a sceptical attitude towards the ver.di leadership was a constant feature. “I’ll have a look at this. But what are we supposed to think when our own union is offering the employers talks on the 40 hour week?” asked one colleague from the city administration.

The dissatisfaction is most noticeable among the rubbish collectors, the backbone of the strike. They have lost a lot during the last years, they complain. Many of them fear that at the end of this struggle there will be nothing more than a rotten compromise. The strike is also being used as a means to vent anger at the worsening of pay and conditions agreed in the new collective agreement for the public sector. In the hospital, cleaning women all ready being employed on the low-wage basis of 1,286 € per month before tax. One worker had a placard saying “More pay for cleaning women. 1,286 € before tax = poverty wages. We demand a minimum wage of 1,500 €.”

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February 2006