Germany: Highly politicised train drivers’ strike

Last week German train drivers and on-board staff went on strike for four days, shaking and polarising the country

Last week German train drivers and on-board staff went on strike for four days, shaking and polarising the country. This is a highly political dispute, as it takes place at the time when the grand coalition government of the conservative CDU/CSU and the former workers’ party, the SPD, are putting forward legislation to limit the right to strike for smaller trade unions.

Since the Second World War, the German trade union movement has been largely unified. Trade unions were organised according to economic sectors – mining, metal industry, public sector etc. – and together they formed the German Trade Union League (DGB). The smaller unions which existed were generally “yellow” pro-bosses’ unions without any significant influence. Collective bargaining contracts were negotiated between the DGB unions and the employers. In practice the result was “one workplace – one contract”.

However, this has changed over recent years as privatisation and outsourcing led to a splitting up of workforces. Also, the right-wing policies of the trade union leaderships led to workers in some professions – like doctors, airport staff and train drivers – to look for alternative ways of organising in the hope that with smaller professional unions they could fight more effectively for their economic interests.

While strike levels in Germany are still generally low it was these smaller unions, especially the train drivers, airline pilots and airport workers, who recently developed a more confrontational strategy. This led to the employers’ association, together with the DGB leadership, demanding legislation to impose a “one workplace – one contract” rule. This would mean that only the biggest union in any workplace can negotiate and sign a contract. In German conditions where the right to strike is only legally unquestioned in cases of official collective bargaining negotiations – this effectively means that smaller unions would lose their right to strike.

SPD Labour Minister, Andrea Nahles, published her draft law last month – during the dispute of the train drivers’ union GDL with the main German railway company, Deutsche Bahn. The GDL is the smaller union in the company but has a majority amongst train drivers and organises 30% of the on-board staff. In 2007, it led a combative strike campaign winning the negotiating position for train drivers and achieving a pay increase of a size which had not been seen in Germany for a long time. That struggle had an overall positive effect on the trade union movement, giving confidence in the ability to fight and demand higher wage increases than previously. Now, the GDL also wants to get a contract for their members amongst the on-broad staff. They demand contract pluralism – an end to “one workplace – one contract”. This would mean that each trade union would have the right to negotiate, sign a contract – and also strike – for their members. This would match with the German constitution which guarantees the right to form “associations” (trade union organisations) and the principle of the right to strike.

Again, in this dispute the GDL puts forward demands which are worth fighting for – a 5% wage increase (which is not higher than the current wage demands of other unions) but also a shortening of the working week by two hours, without loss of pay. This is extremely significant as it is a long time since a trade union in Germany put forward a demand for a shorter working week and struck for it. Actually, the traditional demand for a shorter working week without loss of pay and also the creation of new jobs in order to provide new employment has almost been lost in the German union movement. However, at this time, because of growing stress levels and the continued existence of mass unemployment and under-employment, such a cut in the working week would be an important measure. Among left wing trade unionists and intellectuals, the need to fight for a shorter working week has been raised more and more recently but without much echo in the trade union leaderships. This makes the struggle of the GDL even more significant.

But, as the GDL only organises a section of the Deutsche Bahn workforce, traditionalists in the unions, including some formally on the left, together with the trade union leaderships attack the GDL as splitters and as being egoistic. Parts of the trade union leaderships even support the planned legislation for “contract unity” while others have rejected it under pressure of their members as the legislation would mean a limitation of the right to strike for smaller unions – and in some workplaces like hospitals and airports this could be the DGB affiliated unions.

Obviously, socialists stand for a greatest possible unity of workers especially in one workplace or company. But in case of Deutsche Bahn we are confronted with a small union which does fight for its members and a big union which had almost stopped fighting. This is the background as to why the GDL gained so many new members during the last ten years and more. Therefore, SAV stands in full support for the train drivers’ and on-board staff strike. We say that workers don’t need unity in doing nothing and accepting attacks. At the same time, we argue that the GDL should make proposals for a joint struggle with the other rail union, the EVG, and build a united movement against the management to win the workers’ demands.

Solidarity with the GDL is especially important as we have seen a vicious media slander campaign against its chairman, Claus Weselsky, with tabloid press publishing his mobile phone number and his private address while whipping up anger against him and his union because of the strikes. Still, almost half of the population in recent opinion polls says they understand the strikes.

Even more important is the fact that this strike is the decisive measure in the struggle against the legislation to limit the right to strike. If the GDL loses its dispute, the new law will most certainly be passed. If the GDL wins, there is still a chance to stop it. Within the DGB unions there is growing opposition to this law with the public and service sector union, ver.di, and others opposing it. But verbal opposition obviously is not enough. Protests must be organised. This was also demanded by a recent 600-plus strong conference of left-wing trade union activists called by regional trade union bodies together with the Left Party-aligned Rosa Luxemburg foundation. Unfortunately, while opposing the law and calling on the DGB to organise protests the conference did not come out in solidarity with the train drivers and their struggle.

In the Left Party there has been a certain wavering in regard to its attitude towards the strike. While the party clearly rejects the planned legislation to limit the right to strike, its chairman, Bernd Riexinger, called the GDL strike “wrong” while defending the demands of the union. But pressure had grown in the last week and over the weekend a motion was passed at the Berlin regional conference of the party in support of the GDL strike. This was put forward by the Anti-Capitalist Left (a broader left wing current in which SAV members participate) and others. This motion won a clear majority after a controversial debate in which SAV (CWI in Germany) member Lucy Redler, who moved it, was attacked as a “splitter” by the deputy chairwoman of the Berlin regional party organisation, Elke Breitenbach. After this, the Executive Committee of the national party passed a statement in support of the strike on Monday, 10 November – two days after the end of this wave of strike action but at least it has come out with a clear position now.

Together with other left wing activists, trade union members and Left Party MPs, SAV members have produced a mass solidarity paper, “Yes to the GDL dispute – No to the contract unity law”, for these strikes. With a print run of 65,000, this is a unique project which immediately had a big impact amongst strikers, trade unionists and the left. A second issue will come out in the next days.

The SAV fully supports the strike and calls for a struggle to win the full demands. If necessary the strategy of organising longer and more massive strikes has to be continued in order to increase the pressure on management. SAV members campaign in the DGB trade unions and in the Left Party for solidarity with the strike. This is important as “public opinion” plays a decisive role in this struggle which will be decided by the morale and stamina of the GDL members but also by the question of solidarity. Really, the DGB trade unions should come out in solidarity actions including work stoppages with the GDL strike and in order to stop the planned law. The GDL itself should strive for a broader political campaign to win support for its strike by linking its strike to a struggle against the law but also by linking it up to a struggle against the planned privatisation of Deutsche Bahn. Solidarity meetings, actions and committees should be organised and more importantly the strike itself should be led in a pro-active way with strike meetings, demonstrations, rallies and democratic debates and decision making.

We ask CWI sections, public representatives, trade union representatives and bodies to send solidarity messages to and

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