Germany: “Heroes” on strike – health and public sector workers fight for a living wage

Sol members on 30 September hospital workers' demonstration, Berlin

Public sector workers in Germany’s hospitals, kindergartens, civil service, refuse operations, as well as public transport workers, started ‘warning strikes’ in support of their wage demands. Ver.di, the public sector union, is demanding a 4.8% rise, or a minimum of 150 euros a month extra, for public sector workers. In the local transport sector the dispute is over working conditions.

The mood is angry. As in other countries, only a few months ago politicians praised frontline workers, especially those staff in hospitals, care homes, kindergartens and the public transport for their heroic work during the first Corona-19 virus wave. Now they say they want a wages ‘zero-round’, fuelling anger.

Shortly before the bus and local train drivers were to go on strike, the representative of the employers said that the strikes are an attack on the public (“Anschlag auf die Allgemeinheit”). This seemed to have had a mobilising effect on the workers: on 29 September, nationally, 90% of all bus and local train staff struck for one day.

In the public sector, hospital workers are very angry. For the last five years, various struggles have taken in many hospitals, mainly on the question of a lack of staff. Many nurses, but also cleaners and other hospital staff, feel they are overworked and underpaid. A result was that it was not rare that calls by workers for an extra 500 euro a month were raised in discussions before the union made its formal demands. Some activists felt the demands now on the table are not enough. While inflation is officially low, with prices for cars and other ‘big item’ purchases going down, food and rent costs are rising at a much faster rate.

Bosses’ propaganda

However, there is a lot of bosses’ propaganda on the grounds that many workers in other sectors are threatened with the loss of their jobs, and in the public sector jobs are safe. This is part of the general argument by the government and bosses that workers will have to tighten their belts because of the crisis. Unfortunately, some of the statements by the trade union leaders are not contributing to clarity on this question. While they say there needs to be recognition of the role of frontline jobs, many union leaders also state that they agree that demands need to be lower because of the crisis.

Socialist Organisation Solidarity (CWI Germany) is intervening in the strikes, arguing that instead of billions being put into the pockets of big companies and the rich, there needs to be a massive investment into public services, like the hospitals, kindergartens, and also ‘free’ public transport in order to limit the environmental damage caused by cars and other vehicles. In some areas, members of Sol are also at the forefront, mobilising for the strikes in their workplaces. Sol is actively helping to build a network of combative activists inside the trade unions. We argue that the trade unions need to build on the mobilisations for the current wage round to win these demands while also building a more general movement against the cuts that are likely to come soon, for adequate staff levels and an end to private profiteering in those sectors.

This is not simply a trade union struggle; the employers are representatives of all the main political parties running the local councils and public transport. The main establishment parties are coming out against the strike. The leader of the employers’ association denouncing the strikes is a SPD (social democratic party) mayor. Generally, the left party, Die Linke, is supporting the demands of the trade unions. However, with their leaders moving towards the right and wanting to be in the next national government together with the SPD and the Greens, Dietmar Bartsch, the leader of Die Linke in the national parliament, unfortunately also called the strikes “unreasonable”. He is not giving full support to the unions’ demands, although he has said the employers should be prepared to make a compromise. Bartsch’s statement damaged the strikes, when the whole party should, in words and in action, wholeheartedly help to build support for the strike movement.

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October 2020