Germany : Revolt against an ‘unjust’ society

Strikes, strikes and more strikes!

Berlin has seen many more cyclists on its streets than usual as bus and tube workers have taken all-out strike action for higher wages. At the same time, there has been a series of mass warning strikes in the public sector, with workers demanding a wage increase of €200 as a minimum or eight per cent. On the electoral front, Germany has seen three state elections in the western part of the country, this year, and in each of them the LEFT Party entered the state parliament for the first time.

No-one can deny, any more, that Germany has become a five-party society as the LEFT Party has developed a relatively strong electoral base in West Germany. For the other parties – the Social Democrats (SPD), the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria, the Greens and the Liberals (FDP) – this means that the usual coalition options –Conservatives-Liberals or Social Democrats-Greens – may not work anymore. This was the case after the last federal general election, in 2005, which led to the first ‘grand coalition’ of the CDU/CSU and the SPD since the late 1960s.

This has led to a sharp crisis inside the SPD, around the question of cooperation with the LEFT Party. At the same time, the federal state of Hamburg will probably see the first CDU-Green coalition at state level, reflecting the need for the established capitalist parties to develop new coalition policies.

Anger at job cuts and tax fraud

But Germany has not only gone through exciting times on the electoral level. Despite the fact that there is still economic growth, albeit smaller than last year, one company after another has announced redundancies or factory closures, in recent weeks. These include Nokia (2,300 jobs to go), BMW (7,500) and Siemens/SEN (3,200). All these companies make profits and this has increased the anger against greedy corporations and capitalists. This is on top of the huge tax scandal which erupted a few weeks ago when the German Intelligence Service bought data files from a Liechtenstein bank worker which revealed 1,000 German capitalists, managers and other fat cats have conducted massive tax frauds totalling many billion of Euros.

In a recent opinion poll – conducted before the tax fraud became publicly known – two thirds said that German society is ’rather unjust’. After years of social cuts, falling real wages and increasing working hours this is no surprise. But now the tide in society is changing because of the existence of the LEFT Party which can articulate – often in a distorted form – the aspirations of the working class for a higher share of the wealth in society. These aspirations can clearly be seen in the present wage negotiations between trade unions and employers in several industries. In the steel industry, workers achieved a 5.2% pay rise – the biggest for many years, though still far too little. Here the high demand for steel on the world markets helped the workers and only the threat of strike action was enough to win certain concessions. On the other hand, this means that with a strike a much better deal would have been possible.

But the public sector especially is seeing a polarised wage round with a lot of potential for a strike movement, at the moment. In a number of warning strikes, workers have shown their determination to fight for the main demand of a €200 wage increase. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have taken action in three waves of warning strikes in recent weeks; in hospitals, local councils, airports, childcare facilities, public transport and other parts of the public sector.

At the same time, the train drivers in the independent union, GDL, threatened an all-out strike from 10 March onwards, if the employers did not sign the agreement which was reached weeks ago (see previous articles on The Deutsche Bahn (DB) rail operator and the GDL had reached a wage deal in January which would give an 11% pay rise for all train drivers. But DB had refused to sign the deal until all three rail trade unions harmonised their position on collective wage bargaining. However, last Sunday’s deal will protect GDL’s autonomy in negotiating for train drivers (although the GDL leadership made concessions regarding the representation of other rail workers), which is one of the union’s core demands.

Another strike in the GDL would have brought the country to a standstill. It would have affected about half of regional passenger services in western Germany and about 90% in the eastern part of the country. In the capital, Berlin, it would have meant that no public transport at all would have run as the tube and bus drivers started a ten-day strike on 5 March for their demands for higher wages.

However, this is not yet a French situation of a mass strike movement but it is certainly a new situation for Germany in which the organised working class has begun to put its stamp on society. Given the general left shift in consciousness and the growing support for the LEFT Party, the strike actions show the way demands like those for a minimum wage, a lower age of retirement and an end to privatisations – which have majority support in every opinion poll – can be achieved: through the collective action of the workers!

The LEFT Party

The strikes have coincided with growing political instability. As mentioned above, the electoral successes of the LEFT Party led to a completely new arithmetic on the parliamentary level. The SPD and the CDU have had to look for new partners to form governments. In the federal state of Hessen, this made the SPD break its ’election promise’ not to cooperate with the LEFT Party, as only with the votes of the LEFT Party could the SPD candidate Andrea Ypsilanti be elected as state premier and kick the hated right-wing Christian Democrat Roland Koch out of office.

This situation has intensified the debate within the LEFT on the question of coalition policy. The leader of the LEFT parliamentary group in Hessen, Willi van Ooyen, correctly argues to vote for Ypsilanti in the direct elections to the position of state premier to get rid of Koch, but not to make any political agreements for general co-operation with the SPD. But others on the right wing of the LEFT Party see the situation in Hessen as a chance to tolerate an SPD-led government as a step towards direct government participation in the future (as is already the case in the state of Berlin where a SPD-LEFT coalition implements anti-working class politics).

SAV (CWI in Germany) would support a vote for Ypsilanti, as a parliamentary tactic to express the mass desire to kick out the hated Roland Koch but we oppose in principle any toleration of coalition with the neo-liberal and pro-capitalist SPD. Instead of that, SAV supporters put forward a motion to a Hessen LEFT party conference demanding that the party should mobilise for a mass protest demonstration on the first day of the newly-elected parliament meeting, to show that only mass action by workers and youth can lead to improvements for the masses. This was agreed by conference but so far the Hessen leadership of the LEFT party has done nothing to implement the decision.

But as one right-wing SPD MP in the Hessen parliament, Dagmar Metzger, announced, she would not support Ypsilanti if she used the votes of the LEFT Party to become minister-president and as this would put her majority into danger, Ypsilanti has decided not to stand at all. This has once more intensified the crisis in the SPD, with the party going down in opinion polls and has provoked open debates about a change in the party chairman position.

A new stage of struggle

Germany has entered a new stage of class struggle and class polarisation – before the looming economic crisis has even hit the country. Once this happens it will mean that bitter battles on a mass scale can develop as well as leaps in consciousness, with more and more workers drawing anti-capitalist conclusions. If the LEFT party adopted a class-struggle based socialist programme and energetically intervened in struggles and movements, it could rise out of that as a new mass party of the working class. Unfortunately, the politics of the leadership make this unlikely and, therefore, it is necessary to build a Marxist opposition inside and outside of the party. The prospects for such a Marxist force – the SAV – to grow are getting better, every day.

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March 2008