Germany: Train drivers’ strike sparks wider working class demands

“We’ve given enough!” – Public sector industrial action likely

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Train drivers’ strike sparks wider working class demands

Wide parts of the German working class started the New Year with the slogan of the train drivers: “We’ve given enough!”

“We should do it like them” is what many rank and file trade unionists from the public sector think about the train drivers’ strike, which took place last November. With the demands of 8% or a minimum 200 euro a month wage increase, ver.di, the largest German trade union, started the bargaining in this year’s wage round for local council and federal government workers. The regional ver.di conference in Baden-Württemberg wanted a demand of 9.4%, which is exactly the increase that members of the Bundestag (national parliament) recently received.

The train drivers’ strike not only shook up the trade union landscape with their higher demands of 31% wage increase (although not all of their demands were met, they got single payments of 800 euro and a pay rise of 11%, plus a cut in the weekly working time from 41 hours to 40), they will also get an independent contract, which was one of their main demands.

In July 2007, all three railway workers unions went in negotiations with the German railway management, demanding better working conditions and pay rise of 7 %.

After the GDBA union and the biggest railway union TRANSNET finished the bargaining round with 4.5 % wage increase – although much more would have been possible as is seen now – the train drivers’ union GDL went on an independent wage dispute with the management, demanding 31% pay rise and an independent contract for the GDL which includes all those who work on trains themselves.

The still powerful DGB (German union federation) backed the decision of GDBA and TRANSNET (connected to DGB) and is now faced with a crisis – they lost authority because they opposed the GDL. But now the train drivers reached a successful contract and the population support it (many politicians also opportunistically “support” the gains, as they head into local elections).

The DGB Chair, Michael Sommer, was forced to say that the train drivers’ contract was a good start for the 2008 public sector wage round. But still he proclaimed the DGB stands for the idea of ‘unity’, stating: “That is why we regret the GDL (German train drivers union) line in the wage bargaining.”

The unity of the working class is necessary to have a successful fight against the employers. But this cannot be an abstract dogma.

Workers’ unity is essential to any struggle and was to the foundation of trade unionism, but when trade union leaderships just use the slogan of “unity” to organise sell outs, then workers have to find a way to overcome this obstacle, fight for their demands and, by this, create the basis for a real, fighting unity.

The train drivers not just fought for themselves, but are seen as pioneers, who show how to fight back. Even if they did not reach their original demands, they, nevertheless, lay down a marker: The train drivers showed that resistance and strikes make sense, as the way to increase pressure.

Working people and not the share holders, nor the managers and politicians, run the capitalist system, including transport. For the first time in a long period, workers demonstrated, refused to give in, stood up to management and got results.

The problems facing train drivers, such as a decline in living standards, because of increasing prices of energy, food and water, are well-known by the majority of wage earners. Besides this, the media often talks about the ‘economic upswing’ yet this boom has had no impact on workers’ wages.

This mood has an influence on the workers in the public sector: “The employees want that the economic boom not just goes in the pockets of share holders and managers, but also in theirs,” explained ver.di chairman Frank Bsirske (19.12.07) to the press. “The last enduring wage increase on national – and local level was more than four years ago. At the same time, the prices meanwhile on bulk articles, increased – this year around 3 percent.” So, there is an enormous backlog of demands from employees.

The increase of Bundestag members’ salaries stirred up the mood, as Bsirske explained: “The hypocrisy of politics and economics becomes obvious, because the ones that help themselves demand abandonment of all other people.”

Changed mood in the trade unions

The signal that goes to a large layer of workers is that they can and want to achieve a pay rise that really improves their living standards.

Two years ago, the main point of the public sector wage round was the proposal of the VKA (Association of the local council employers) to increase the weekly working time, from around 39 hours to 40 hours. After nine weeks of strike action, the increase in working time was partly avoided, but the wage increase was only 2.9%.

The Chair of the bigger trade unions, like ver.di or IG-Metall (metal workers’ union), often played the role of a helping hand for the management to organise sell outs, including during the Telekom strike, last year.

It is not unusual for the union leaders to reply to bosses’ cuts with a plea for “softer” cuts proposals. This was seen, for instance, in the Charité, in Berlin (Germany’s biggest hospital). In autumn 2005, ver.di announced that instead of the intended cuts of 40 million euro workplace cuts, “only” 30 million would be carried out through wage cuts!

They went even further. The leaders of IG-Metall and ver.di were proactive concerning the wage scale system. While claiming to ‘equalise’ conditions between different groups of workers, these changes, called ERA (in IG-Metall) and TVÖD (in ver.di) both involved enormous wage cuts for many workers.

Compared to that, the strike of the train drivers is, at long last, an offensive fight for more money and better working conditions. That has an impact. As the ver.di leader Bsirske commented on the train drivers strikes: “It is obvious the mood has changed.”


That the mood changed could also been seen a few days ago, when the Nokia Finnish employers suddenly announced they will close a profitable factory in Bochum. More than 4,300 workers, inside and outside the factory, are threatened with losing their jobs. The factory will move to Romania where the wages are ten times lower.

This provoked uproar throughout Germany. The politicians of all the pro-capitalist parties, pushed by current local election campaigns, call for a boycott of Nokia mobile phones. Nokia employees, instead, took spontaneous action to fight back: they decided not to go to work the next day. Only the half of the morning shift was working, and even the night shift completely rejected going on working. For some hours, employees blocked the road to the factory, expressing their disappointment and anger and even their fear at becoming unemployed.

However, instead of using this mood to resists the factory closure, the IG-Metall leaders did not call for a stoppage, but called on the Nokia workers to wait until the government ministers negotiated with the Finnish employers. Again, the trade union leadership plays the role of strike breakers and waste the potential of the workers to defeat the bosses.

Although the union leaders provide not real leadership, workers at the Opel car factory, in Bochum, which is well-known for having a militant rank and file, announced they will go on solidarity strike when the Nokia workers hold a protest demonstration on Tuesday 22 January.

Bargaining round public sector

The VKA submitted a ten-point paper, in November 2007, for the 2008 bargaining round. In this programme, they completely refused a real wage increase.

At the same time, they demanded a 40 hour week and other attacks on workers conditions.

This 10 point programme looks like a provocation to most trade unionists. Unions need to respond with a counterclaim of a national-wide weekly working time of 38.5 hours, leading to a 30 hour week.

Ver.di announced they will have five negotiating rounds, with the last one on 6-7 March. If there is no agreement, strikes are very likely.

“Therefore strike preparations are on full speed. The mood is extremely good, in all areas,” state Bernd Riexinger, ver.di regional secretary for Baden-Württemberg and also a member of the Left Party. For 2008, the national government already calculates small deficits in the budget at local level. One reason for this, is that they suspect an unexpected wage increase for the public sector.

Besides their struggles for retail industry workers (ver.di demands a 6.5% wage rise, plus increases in holiday and Christmas pay) the ver.di leadership is under pressure from workers in local transport. In Munich and Berlin, hundreds of drivers left ver.di to join the GDL union, expressing their anger about the new collective agreements.

The local transport business is also worried about the success the train drivers gained. The president of the association of German transport companies, who have their bargaining round negotiations in the next months, remarked the demand for an independent contract, can find other workers following that example.

Rail privatisation

Looking back at the discussion over the rail privatisation, one year ago, it can be seen how the GDL chairman, Schell, seemed to quickly change his opinion during strike action by his union. Now he is forced to speak against threatening privatisation, as a whole. However shortly before the wage dispute, Manfred Schell said he supported part-privatisation if, "The ownership of railway’s infrastructure is separated from the stock exchange floatation and remains owned by the Federal Republic.”

This idea is similar to the British situation, where rail network is back under a form of public administration. Not least because of the train drivers’ strike, planned rail privatisation is no longer an issue for the national government, until March 2008. As part of the effort to stop the privatisation of the German railway company, the struggle of the train drivers was very helpful. A strong and self-confident train drivers’ union is a problem for every investor, who is interested in maximising profit through wage cuts and worsening working conditions.

Peaceful agreement?

During the recent train drivers’ strike, it became obvious that more could have been gained. German newspapers, like WELT, remarked that the conflict took so much time and suddenly it looked like GDL chairman Schell, but also the German transport minister, Tiefensee, seemed to be in a hurry to finish the dispute. WELT wrote about the conflict on 10 January 2008, saying the “GDL rank and file level puts more and more pressure on the leadership”.

At the beginning of this year, critical trade unionists in the train drivers’ union in Berlin organised, with the help of SAV-members (the CWI German section), a rally to force the leadership to give them more information about the ongoing negotiations. They demanded the leaders should call for an (indefinite) strike if the proposals from the employers’ were still inadequate

Just before Christmas, Schell announced that he had stopped negotiations once again, because he was disappointed with how the things were gong and he put more pressure on management by threatening an indefinite strike from 7 January, if there was no agreement by that date.

This announcement increased the mood for strike action amongst rank and file train drivers. Schell was afraid to lose authority and Tiefensee, the transport minister was terrified at the idea of the train drivers continuing with their stand-off at the same time as public sector workers go on strike. The impact of such mass strikes in important work stations would assume general strike proportions in Germany.

Though there will not be anymore strikes in this conflict, the GDL workers gained not just a victory with a pay raise – for other railway workers, too – but showed it is possible to stand up against the employers and also the baiting of the media and the politicians. They also forced the leaders of the DGB on the offensive under pressure from their members, who no longer accept the “logic” of making modest demands.

Without the GDL strike, the big demands by public sector workers in negotiations– the highest in 15 years – would have not been made. But the example of Nokia shows that, although the anger was great enough to lead to spontaneous stoppages, workers did not see they could do next. So, when the union leadership announced that the government is negotiations with Nokia bosses, the workers went back to work, and did not try to argue against this proposal: they still do not see that the power to save their factories depends on what action they take.

But coming waves of resistance – stored up by the enormous anger of workers against bosses and the huge fear of losing jobs – will overcome the obstacle of a rotten union leadership and will re-develop the trade unions as tools for the working class with which to effectively fight back.

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January 2008