Germany: Multiple strikes mark changed situation

Strikes in numerous sectors as workers fail to benefit from “recovery”

It is only June, but the number of days “lost” to strikes in Germany has already doubled in comparison to the whole year of 2014 and at its highest since 2003. After bigger warning strikes of public sector and metal workers earlier this year, we have seen a three week-long strike of Kindergarten nurses and social workers and the biggest ever train drivers’ strike in the country’s history, well as warning strikes of postal, retail and insurance workers. This week, postal workers have started an unlimited strike while Siemens workers held a day of protest against job cuts. Also the trade union ver.di is, after a ballot, likely to soon begin unlimited strike action at Europe’s biggest university hospital, the Charité in Berlin. This marks a new situation in Europe’s powerhouse.

Germany has come out of the “great recession” and the Euro crisis as the main economic and political power in Europe. It was one of the first countries to reach its pre-crisis GDP level again. This relative – and superficial – economic stability and strength is the main reason for an apparent political stability and the relatively strong position of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her grand coalition government. Indeed over the last years, many workers thought – looking at the situation in other European countries – that they were lucky not to be drawn into the spiral of crisis and austerity. In fact, the grand coalition began its time in office with some, very limited, social reforms like the introduction of a €8.50 minimum wage.

But, and this is a big but, Germany’s economic strength is hardly reflected in the living standards of working people. On the contrary it is based on an enormous widening of the low wage sector and precarious working conditions and an increase in work intensity. For many workers, stress levels have reached unprecedented levels. This is one common feature in many of the strike movements and industrial disputes we have seen in the recent period. These strikes, together with a growing polarisation around the issue of migration, have led to a change in the political situation in the country. At the end of 2014, racist demonstrations under the banner of “PEGIDA” (see previous reports on began and provoked anti-racist mass demonstrations around the country. There have also been a number of mobilisations against the free trade agreement TTIP with a big demonstration planned for October. Just last week tens of thousands took to the streets against the G7 summit in Bavaria.

Recent strikes have mainly taken place in public services – railways, post, hospitals, childcare (kindergarten) and social work. They have different specific issues but, as has been said, one common feature is the fight against bad working conditions. They are also all of a clearer political character because the question is posed if public services should remain public and whether they should be run for profit or people’s needs. There is a potential to bring different struggles together into one movement for better working conditions, workers’ rights, the defence of the public sector and for the re-distribution of wealth from top to bottom. But the trade union leaderships make no attempt to develop a coordinated strategy for struggle.

Train drivers

On the contrary one aspect of the dispute on the railways was an open split of the trade union movement. Here the train drivers are in their majority organised in the GDL (trade union of German train drivers) which is an old “craft union” that does not belong to the main DGB trade union federation but to the traditionally more conservative DBB grouping of civil servant associations. But as the DGB-affiliated railway union EVG has a long tradition of co-management and sell-outs, the GDL – on the basis of a more combative policy and the organisation of strikes – has recently become the strongest union among train drivers while the EVG remains stronger among the rest of the workforce. This has been a feature in other professions as well, such as pilots and doctors. The emergence of more combative “craft unions” is both a threat to the capitalist class and to the wider trade union bureaucracy.

To stop the growing influence of these craft unions, the government put forward new anti-trade union legislation which in effect limits the right to sign collective bargaining agreements and thereby, under German law, the legal right to strike to the biggest single union in a workplace. This measure was supported by a majority of DGB affiliated unions, especially the industrial ones, whose leaderships while speaking of the need for “unity” in reality feared that their own members would be inspired by the craft unions’ current militancy. Under pressure from their rank and file the public sector and services union ver.di, the teachers’ union GEW and the food workers’ union NGG came out in opposition to this law.

The battle of the train drivers was directly linked to this legislation. Rail management tried to delay negotiations until after the passing of the bill in parliament on 29 May. This provoked the biggest train drivers’ strikes in the history of the country. While the train drivers – who also struck for equal pay for all train drivers and for better wages and conditions for other on-board train staff – stood solidly behind the strike the leaderships of all the DGB trade unions came out in opposition calling the GDL “splitters”. In reality these leaders formed an unholy alliance with the employers against a trade union which is seen by many as the only union which is seriously fighting for its members’ interests. Despite the DGB leaders’ opposition and enormous media propaganda against the strike, opinion polls have shown that there has consistently been half the population in solidarity with the train drivers and also a lot of sympathy amongst the rank and file of the DGB trade unions. While the trade union leaderships failed to organise any solidarity with the GDL, SAV (CWI in Germany) together with other left activists and others helped publish a solidarity newspaper for the strike which published six issues over the last 6 months and had a print run of several tens of thousands.

While the anti-strike legislation could not be stopped this time, the train drivers’ successfully got a guarantee from rail management that they will get a collective bargaining contract for their members independent from contracts with the bigger trade union. While socialists would usually support the greatest possible unity among workers of one company and also the idea of one contract for all, under these circumstances the fight of the GDL for their own contract was, at this time, the only realistic way to advance with a fighting trade union policy in the railways. At the time of writing, mediation is taking place to negotiate the demands of the union which are for a five per cent wage increase, a reduction of the working week by one hour and a reduction of the massive overtime train drivers have to work.

Kindergarten and social workers

Also last week, the three week long strike of public kindergarten and social workers was interrupted in order to start a mediation process. Here the trade union ver.di is demanding a better job classification for these 240,000 workers which would lead to an average ten percent wage increase –after some wage rates in this sector were cut in 2005. This is especially important as these are classically women’s jobs and a success would motivate women workers in other professions to demand their rights as well.

The strike was marked by a high level of participation, large demonstrations and big support among parents and the wider population as everyone understands the importance of what the kindergarten and social workers do. There were also more elements of participation and democracy, with strikers’ meetings in the areas and a national delegates’ conference. But while ver.di chairman, Frank Bsirske, had promised at the first conference that the strike would finish before an acceptable offer is on the table, the union leadership supported the mediation and thereby the interruption of the strike. This is because of a contract which says that a union must stop a strike if the employers call for mediation. This is a contract which left wing trade unionists have for years been demanding should be cancelled as soon as possible. Now the danger is there that the union leadership will not call the workers out on strike again and will agree to a compromise which will not meet the workers’ expectations.

SAV members among the strikers call for a broad solidarity campaign by the ver.di trade union and other unions including solidarity strikes and coordinated action of the different workforces which are in disputes at the moment.

Charité hospital

A special dispute is coming to an escalation at Europe’s biggest university clinic, the Charité in Berlin. Given the shortfall of 162,000 jobs in German hospitals the trade union is demanding a law to regulate the number of staff per patient. The Charité workers don’t want to wait until the government moves but are demanding now a collective bargaining contract to regulate patient/nurse ratios. At the end of April Charité workers held, for the first time ever, a hospital warning strike over these demands. This was followed by a ballot of trade union members at the Charité saw a clear majority voting in favour of strike action which will most likely begin in the second half of June. This strike is of national importance despite the fact that it is only taken place in one workplace in one city. But a success could break open the floodgates and motivate hospital workers and others to follow their example. SAV members play an important role both in the trade union branch and in the solidarity alliance “Berliners for more staff in hospitals”.

New unionism?

There has been a clear increase in trade union struggles in some sectors, especially the service sector. This reflects the worsening of conditions in this sector through privatisations and outsourcing and the fact that the unions have to do something in order not to end up becoming insignificant. Moreover, many public and service sector workers feel their wages and conditions are lagging behind at a time when the German economy appears to be in recovery and the state is enjoying a higher tax income. We are also seeing the beginnings of a new layer of activists developing in fighting sectors and the emergence of left wing full time union secretaries in some cases who try to push the unions to a more combative strategy.

2013 saw a long retail strike and again this year retail workers have begun to take action. At the Post company, workers are opposing the lowering of wages through the creation of sub companies, which would pay an average of €13 a hour compared to the average €17 which current Post AG workers receive. However, despite the increase in the number of strikes there has also been a further shift to the right by the leaderships of the industrial unions, reflecting their close support for the companies dominating Germany’s export-based economy. This has also led to some tensions between the leaderships of the industrial and service unions.

SAV members are active in these battles trying to build the strikes and the trade union organisations on a democratic and combative basis. We call on activists to get organised in networks which can influence trade union policy and organise actions from below in order to fight for a political alternative in the unions – for fighting and democratic trade unions with an anti-capitalist policy.

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June 2015