Germany | Public Service Wage Round

EVG railway union members protest.

With sustained strike action more would be possible!

500,000 workers took part in massive warning strikes. The turnout was higher than expected. 70,000 new members joined the ver.di trade union in the first three months of the year. These were all good preconditions to consistently push through the more than justified demands in this round of collective bargaining, also with an unlimited strike. But despite militant speeches at rallies, the ver.di leadership and the majority of the federal bargaining commission swung towards accepting an arbitration recommendation, which in reality means a loss of real wages. This should be taken as an opportunity to promote a systematic networking of members and workplace groups who want to stand up for a consistent fighting orientation.

The enormous price increases made this round of collective bargaining different from previous years. Added to that the enormous workload was a big issue for most public sector workers.

The anger increased during the warning strikes, because the employers first refused to negotiate about wage increases in cash terms when the union was a minimum 500 euro a month wage rise for all workers, instead of a percentage increase which is higher for higher wages. This was followed by threats of imposing emergency wage agreements for employees of the public savings banks and so-called “future protection agreements” for hospitals, which were supposed to include wage reductions. These remained threats, but the federal government and the municipalities got their way by not renewing the agreement on partial retirement and securing an agreement on a 24 month long wage contract (which includes, at a time of high inflation, 14 months without any increase in wage rates). The bosses got this deal by granting a one-off flat rate payments to compensate for inflation but which do not increase actual wage rates.


One-off Payments

The option of these one-off extra payments totaling up to 3000 euros without tax deduction or social security charges had been introduced by the federal government as a means to facilitate precisely such deals. The trade union leaderships initially stated that such bonuses should under no circumstances be included in collective agreements. The ver.di chairman Frank Werneke also emphasised that any one-off payment should only be “on top”, but under no circumstances should it be used to compensate for non-increases of wage rates. This had also been said in the Deutsche Post collective bargaining round. But now in both the public sector and Post agreements this is exactly what has happened – and these one off payments are used to accept too late and too little wage rate increases. Above all, it is scandalous how the ver.di leadership’s presentation turned into the opposite from one day to the next. What was completely unacceptable yesterday is today a “very good” or even “historic” bargaining result!

Many active trade union activists who have mobilised their work mates for weeks now understandably feel taken for a ride. There should be no illusions about this. The wage claim was for a 12 month contract with a 10.5 percent wage rise, with a minimum increase of 500 euros a month. The deal is both too little, too late and means a loss of real wages. According to estimates by Marcel Fratzscher, President of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), it amounts to as much as six percent cut in real wages. This calculation applies if the relatively cautious forecasts of further inflation of six per cent in 2023 and three per cent in 2024 come true. If inflation turns out to be higher, then the loss will be even greater! And this cannot be ruled out, in March food inflation in Germany was over 21%. It is a big problem that the ver.di leadership is window-dressing the result with figures like 11 to 16 per cent wage increases, because most workers will realise sooner or later that it is different. A trade union has to communicate honestly with its members and not indulge in window-dressing.


Fight Consistently

But there is also a great need for change in ver.di in terms of strike democracy and strategy. If they now claim that there is no real fighting capacity in the public service, then this is also an about-turn and it also does not fit with what has happened in reality before. In many work places it has been possible to win many new members or to bring back those who have left. Some became active as “collective bargaining delegates” or strike delegates in their workplaces. In many places there were reports that the participation in the warning strikes grew steadily and exceeded the expectations of the strike leaders. These good approaches could best have been developed further in struggle.

That it is possible to break up encrusted structures within ver.di and change things for the better was shown, among other places, in Berlin, where there were more joint strike assemblies of the different work places and joint demonstrations, which is not least due to the experience and work of the hospital workers who have been on strike in recent years and have used new methods.


Fighting Capacity

Full-time officials are now stressing that the unions do not yet have enough members. Indeed, there are gaps in trade union organisation in the public sector. But the warning strikes have made it clear what potential there already is in work stoppages. Ver.di could have led the way with the well-organised areas and could have pulled others along with consistent leadership. With the strikes at airports, local transport, in large parts of the supply and waste management sector alone, a large (and also economic) effect can be achieved. Together with important sectors like hospitals, kindergartens and many more, which produce only limited economic damage but have great importance for social life, an unlimited strike could have put enormous pressure on the employers’ side in the municipalities and the federal government after a few days. This could have been coordinated very well with strikes by the EVG railway union. The March 27 “mega strike” by EVG [railways] and ver.di [local transport] showed what is possible and it was an important step forward that generated enthusiasm. This could have been extended to several days, paralysing all passenger and goods transport. Of course, it would also have been necessary here to organise a broad solidarity campaign by the other ver.di sections and the entire DGB [trade union federation] in order to maintain support among the entire working population. The questions of how to organise an effective strike must be discussed and decided democratically by the strikers and activists themselves.


Strike Democracy

Instead of so called “collective bargaining delegate” video conferences, where there was no possibility for discussion, just top-down information, it would be necessary to organise nationwide strike delegates’ conferences. This would be the proper place to collect assessments of the strength of the struggle and to discuss and vote democratically on the next steps. Such a strike delegates’ conference would have to be equipped with comprehensive decision-making powers on all important questions, such as the next steps in the struggle before negotiations and the evaluation of results. Fighting union members should work together for this demand, as well as for the termination of the self-limiting arbitration agreement in the public sector, which is binding ver.di to an arbitration process before it can actually go into a ballot for proper and full strike action. There have been demands to scrap this long-term agreement and a resolution to that effect is tabled to the next ver.di national congress in September.


Network for a Fighting and Democratic Ver.di

During the collective bargaining rounds at the postal service and in the public sector, there were three well-attended video conferences of fighting union members initiated by the “Network for a Fighting and Democratic ver.di” and the Network for Fighting Trade Unions (VKG). This is an excellent approach to continue networking systematically and to prepare better for the next labour struggles, not only for the coming collective bargaining rounds. Because in capitalism there will always be attacks by the rulers on the wage earners. Soon the federal government may try to impose social security cuts and pension cuts or restrict the right to strike – a demand that has recently been repeated from the employers association. For a consistent defence against such attacks a fighting orientation in the trade unions is needed. Everything should be done for this now. The “Network for a Fighting and Democratic ver.di” offers a good basis for this, which can also serve as a forum for a debate on the necessity of an anti-capitalist orientation of the trade unions.


Network for a Fighting and Democratic ver.di (in German)


Network for Fighting Trade Unions (VKG) (in German)

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May 2023