“Ready to fight like we haven’t done in years!” – interview with a young German rail worker

Jonas Grampp is a member of the youth group of the Berlin region of the German Railway and Transport Union (EVG) and of the youth representative committee of DB Netz AG, the railway infrastructure division of German Railways (Deutsche Bahn). He is also a member of Sol (Socialist Organisation Solidarity – CWI in Germany), and active in Bahnvernetzung, a circle of militant trade unionists in the EVG and the German Train DriversUnion (GDL), which are close to the Network for Combative Trade Unions (VKG). Sascha Staničić spoke with him for Sol. The interview first was published on February 22nd on solidaritaet.info. Since the interview, the media reported a possible united ‘warning strike’ by railway and public sector workers planned for 27 March. However, since those reports, the ver.di trade union leadership agreed on a bad compromise for the postal workers which will now be put to a ballot. Reports on that will follow soon on socialistworld.net

How did the demand for a relatively high wage increase by the German Railway and Transport Union (EVG) for the upcoming collective bargaining round come about?

In 2021, the EVG entered into the “Coalition for our Railways” with management and settled for a wage agreement that caused real wage losses for the workers. Given the decline in long-distance passenger numbers, management threatened to resort to layoffs, and the EVG leadership bought job security at the expense of sacrificing real wages. They failed to fight back, or even organise a broad discussion about it in the workforce. This has led to great frustration among many workers, and as a result, there was a great deal of pressure from below before this round of collective bargaining. This pressure was compounded by the existence of the German Train Drivers’ Union (GDL) — the danger that members could move to the GDL hangs over the EVG leadership like the sword of Damocles. Before this round of collective bargaining, many workers said that if there was not at least a 10% increase, the EVG would be history. In a way, the EVG leadership, which is certainly not known for its militancy, had no other choice but to make a high demand this time and take on a militant tone.

What is the mood amongst the workers right now?

More militant than they have been for years. There is definitely a great willingness to strike and a high level of expectation. This is not just about wages. The working conditions are rotten, and many workers want to hold management accountable and make it clear that things cannot go on like this. But the wages are also intolerable. Many workers only manage to earn the legal minimum wage through their allowances, and there is still a high wage gap between those in the former East and West Germany. Consequently, it was important for the demand by the EVG to have a social dimension through the fixed wage demand for a 650 euro a month increase, which should especially benefit the lower wage groups. The demand is 12% but with a 650 euro a month minimum. That is 12% only for workers who earn more than a gross of 5,417 euros, but for many other workers, it is 20 to 25%. It is also important that the length of a new deal must be for twelve months being demanded, as many workers only agreed to a wage-only round this year in order to fight for better working conditions, like the abolition of twelve-hour shifts, as quickly as possible.

In your opinion, how should the union prepare for the collective bargaining negotiations, and how can the demands be pushed through?

In the next few weeks, the main thing is to talk to co-workers, to explain to them that a strike will be necessary to push through the demands and to prepare them for it and educate them on it. This can also help to win more members of the union.

Many workers already expect a strike to take place, and the EVG leadership is striking an unusually militant tone. Union president Martin Burkert stresses that the union is “ready to fight” and that the spring will be “heated”. Unfortunately, hardly any actions or warning strikes have been announced so far for the first phase of the negotiations. Moreover, while members of ver. di, the second largest German trade union, who work in public services receive strike pay for warning strikes, EVG members do not, which could negatively impact participation. Therefore, it is argued that strike pay will be needed if it comes to a full-scale strike.

It is also important that no divisiveness be allowed. After all, negotiations are being held for fifty different companies. The union’s position is that there must be one agreement for all fifty companies, rather than several individual agreements. That is why we have elected a collective bargaining committee with representatives from all sectors. This is good, but we also need broad participation by workers in the strike. Not only must the negotiations be transparent, but regular strike assemblies must take place, and no agreements finalized without broad debate and a democratic vote.

Unfortunately, coalitions still have not been established for workers in the postal service and other parts of the public sector who are in collective bargaining negotiations and may also go on strike. We have to put pressure on all the unions to coordinate and take joint action.

What will be the impact of Germany’s 2015 Act on Collective Agreement Unity (Tarifeinheitsgesetz, TEG)?

The TEG stipulates that, of all the trade unions in a company, only the trade union with the most members in a workplace has collective bargaining rights and, therefore (under German law), the right to call a strike. This is an attack against the right to strike and against the freedom of trade unions. Unfortunately, the unions have not organised a serious struggle against this law. However, in practice, this is not much of a problem in most railway companies, as the majority of ratios between the EVG and the GDL are very clear in most cases. For example, at DB Netz, the railway infrastructure division of German Railways, 90% of the union members are surely in the EVG. But there are also exceptions, such as the Berlin regional S-Bahn.

I advocate for the union, which has collective bargaining rights, according to the TEG, to call all workers to strike, and the union without collective bargaining rights to also call on its members to strike. We are only strong if we stand together! Unfortunately, this has not been the approach taken by the EVG, so far, but we are trying to strengthen the idea of a combined struggle with rank-and-file members of both unions.


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March 2023