Militant move: Why German workers are striking out for change
Wednesday 3rd June 2015
Long hours, low pay, anti-union laws and precarious employment have pushed the people of Germany to breaking point. Strikes were inevitable, writes VICTOR GROSSMAN
WAS the German working class suddenly turning super-militant? Some may have been fearful — some hopeful — that on the rail lines and elsewhere the old 1915 IWW song Solidarity Forever was literally coming true: “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”
The strike of locomotive engineers stopped freight cars on May 19 and passenger traffic the next day. Unlike eight previous strikes by the same union, the strike was not for 30 hours, 42 hours or six days — it had no end date. Although the state-owned but largely independently run railroad company tried to maintain a skeleton schedule, two-thirds of the wheels stopped turning. City rail services were cut by between 40 and 85 percent.
In Berlin the crucial S-Bahn elevated system tried hard to achieve at least 20-minute intervals on main routes. Underground, bus and tram lines were unaffected but overfilled.
The long-lasting dispute involved not just wages and hours — a 38-hour work week, no more than 50 hours’ overtime and proper weekends, all considered necessary for rail safety — but also a jurisdictional conflict. The workers are members of Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivfuhrer. This small union, Germany’s second oldest, dating back to 1867 (though interrupted by the Nazi years) insists on its right to organise not only engineers but also other staff working on the trains like conductors and restaurant workers, and not be swallowed up by the general transportation union — seven times larger but usually tamer.
Many Germans are more-or-less pro-union, but of course this strike did hit people going to work or school each day and frightened those planning travels over the long May 23-25 weekend (not just Pentecost Sunday, Whit Monday is also a holiday). The issues were not easy to grasp for non-railway people and the media, aided by the Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer, did what they could to work up feelings, especially against the union head, who is alternately ridiculed due to his Saxon (east German) dialect, laughed at rather like a brogue or a Brooklyn dialect, or attacked in hard language recalling earlier abuse of Fidel Castro or currently of Vladimir Putin.
Then an agreement was reached to end the strike and turn the matter over to two mediators. They are a curious pair: for the company Matthias Platzeck, 61, a Social Democrat, until 2013 minister-president of a coalition with Die Linke (The Left) in Brandenburg state, and for the engineers Bodo Ramelow, 59, once a West German union official but since December the first Left minister-president in Germany, heading a coalition of Left, SPD and Greens in Thuringia — also in former East Germany.
Ramelow pointed out right away that the new written agreement permitted the union a separate contract, a key issue. But neither man is a fire-eater — both have made past compromises — so it seemed fairly likely that they would work out an agreement.
Then, a day later, the entire picture changed. The engineers had accused railroad managers of purposeful foot-dragging, partly so people would blame and hate the union for the inconvenience, but also because a new law due for passage by the Bundestag (federal parliament) would hinder just such small independent unions from organising and making contracts at companies with larger unions. This would hit not only the engineers and train staff but pilots, air traffic controllers (now also considering a strike) and even doctors working in clinics.
This law was clearly intervention in free union activity and, it was admitted, it would prevent many strikes. Some saw it as a quid-pro-quo move by Social Democrats in the government coalition after Merkel’s Christian Democrats agreed to the new minimum wage law. Others saw it as just one more move against militancy. And now it has been passed, the Left, the Greens and some mavericks were unable to stop a big government majority. It will immediately be challenged in the Supreme Court, with a very uncertain outcome.
This law and the train strike have divided an already edgy labour movement. The West German union federation (DGB), founded in 1949 with 16 industrial unions, is now down to eight after many mergers. More worrisome, the number of organised employees dropped from about 25 per cent in 2005 to a little over 16 per cent now, with only a slight recent upturn.
The demise of East Germany and its entire union movement did not nearly bring a big expected growth since East German industry was also largely disposed of. And the alarming increase in part-time, temporary, low-paid and other precarious jobs, usually with no union membership, has taken its toll.
And yet, more than 6 million people are still organized — if not always united.
The new law is officially welcomed by four big unions: metal workers, mine and chemical workers, construction workers and transportation workers. These four, even when they demand wage increases, generally get along with employers. Their initial post-war opposition to the so-called “social market economy” grew more docile over the years, with broad acceptance and support for the status quo, just like their main Social Democratic ally. For these four unions, the days of big, militant strikes are generally forgotten.
But three other unions, mostly with more women, are not so glued to the SPD and sometimes lean more leftward, though rarely daring, even on a local scale, to show too much sympathy for the Left, which is labour’s most consistent ally in state and federal parliaments but still largely taboo in west Germany thanks to old feelings against the GDR.
They are the teachers’ union, the union of food and restaurant workers (both headed by a woman), and Verdi, the service workers union. Verdi unites all kinds of people: retail clerks, public employees from hospital workers to refuse collectors, bank, insurance and other white-collar workers, postal employees, workers in the paper and printing field, with special branches for photographers, writers, musicians and artists, and even one for sex workers.
Its charismatic president Frank Bsirske, 63, belongs to the Greens, but Verdi has taken part in annual left-wing Rosa Luxemburg conferences, worked with the anti-globalism Attac movement and joined in the Blockupy demonstration against the European Central Bank in Frankfurt in March. It is over 2 million strong, topped only by the metal workers union with its 2.3 million members, and with which it has occasional jurisdictional disputes.
There is often “bad blood” between their leaders. Verdi, certainly the fightingest of them all, leads more strikes than all the others combined, in part because its more numerous female membership faces more discrimination than most blue-collar men.
Right now Verdi’s postal employees are conducting a series of short warning strikes on wage and hours issues, first in one state, then in another.
In Brandenburg state bus and tram drivers are demanding more pay, and also switching stoppages from one county to another until authorities make an acceptable offer. Nurses and other personnel at Charité, Berlin’s famous university hospital, are after years of warning strikes now voting on a possible unlimited strike (with full attention to patients in need of care). Their demands are for an urgently needed improvement in the nurse-patient ratio. They demand no more than a 1:2 staff-patient ratio in intensive care wards and 1:5 at normal wards, instead of the present average of 1:12.
For two years Amazon workers have been fighting hard for decent wages against bosses who have done everything to use strikebreakers and set shops against each other.
In the most dramatic of Verdi strikes, since early May the staff of most nurseries and kindergartens and some care homes have gone on strike to demand a 10 per cent increase in wages, now far too low in view of their long training. This includes a wish for more respect for their demanding and important job. Thanks to the example of the GDR (though it is rarely mentioned), the offer of childcare, private or public, is now at least officially required, with a wide variety of usually low prices, which means that the strikes cause problems for a large percentage of working parents.
But the women (and a few men) saw no alternative and hope the growing pressure will help them win.
Does this strike wave reflect a change in an otherwise more placid economic and political scene? Crystal balls are rare and untrustworthy. Golf balls, or giant structures resembling them, now take more headlines but are far, far less transparent than the crystal kind. Round and white, these radar domes, located in Bad Aibling in Bavaria, are tools in the all-encompassing spying activity which has joined the US NSA with the German BND in a long-lasting series of scandals.
The German side, the media cries, lets cloak-and-dagger men from Washington not only in on government doings all over Europe and beyond, but on a host of business matters too, with a list of maybe 5,000 selectors: words, names and places to be sorted out from the billions of messages. And this is in clear violation of basic German law.
The differing reactions of those caught up in the limelight are more than interesting. Washington kept largely mum. Chancellor Angela Merkel is now busy pressuring southern Europeans, especially in Greece, to keep up austerity measures no matter what, or pressuring eastern Europeans to step up pressure against Russia.
Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats and vice-chancellor in the coalition, sounded off loudly against the responsible officials. His party somehow can’t break out of a 25 per cent trough in the polls (against the 40 per cent average of Merkel’s side of the coalition) and he sniffed a chance to win points. But when a few journalists recalled that his party had been in charge when the NSA-BND agreements were made, Gabriel’s voice lost its angry tones and almost got lost entirely — only briefly, of course.
And the head of the BND, the Federal Intelligence Service? Hailed in front of a Bundestag committee, he asserted that he had known nothing about the whole spy deal until just last month. It was all done by his underlings.
And no-one seemed to recall that the whole BND organisation was founded in 1956 by nazi ex-general Reinhard Gehlen, after building it up as an annex of the CIA right after the war. Some of its ties, not only to Washington but to Gehlen’s earlier buddies, never completely lost their influence, as a growing pile of evidence indicates.
Human rights activist Angela Davis, visiting Berlin among other places, went to the former school building where 40 asylum-seekers are living, part of a larger group of African and Middle Eastern refugees still fighting for the right to gain asylum since 2012, when they walked to Berlin in a long caravan. Davis was barred by police from entering the building but met asylum-seekers and their supporters at an outdoor meeting, where she compared their fight with that in the US against anti-immigrant policies and the incarceration of great numbers of its citizens.
Older East Germans know her name well. During her imprisonment and trial in California in 1970-72 she received tons of supportive letters and cards from GDR young people, often adorned with a hand-drawn “rose for Angela.” The vans with big sacks of mail even impressed the presiding judge.
In the same Kreuzberg district she visited, the weekend saw the annual Carnival of Cultures, one of Berlin’s nicest events, with a parade on Sunday of some 60 costumed dancing groups from the many nationalities living in Berlin. Over a million spectators were expected along the parade route.