New workers’ struggles: a rapidly spreading fire

May 04, 2008

The rapid erosion of democratic-bourgeois legitimacy, its institutions
and a ruling class sunk in scandals of corruption and fiscal fraud, is
framed by a dizzying growth of wage inequality and an increase in
inflation that does not appear to be stopping. The government,
pressured by the bourgeoisie to increase the policy of making
employment uncertain, a course begun by Schröder’s social democrats,
and the growing number of strikes that exceed the limit of customary
negotiations, for now is incapable of overcoming its disorientation,
which for its part is encouraging the workers’ struggles.

In the bourgeois press, the corridors of the ministries, and
parliament, it is stated with dread that those golden years of "social
collaboration" between workers and the bourgeoisie have begun to cease
to be the most natural thing in the world, since the workers, tired of
seeing how their historic conquests are being eliminated one by one,
and in the general framework of economic growth, now endangered by the
financial crisis, have begun to fight to recover part of what was
lost. For their part, the union bureaucracies, including those that
are supposedly the most combative like the GdL (see the explanation at
the end of the article), still have a lot of room for maneuver to
negotiate with the bosses behind the backs of the workers, because of
division in their ranks and low consciousness. For that reason, until
now, workers’ struggles have not led to the appearance of
anti-bureaucratic and militant tendencies in those struggles, that,
including broad sectors of the proletariat, would make obvious the
political struggle against the measures by Schröder and the Grand
Coalition that make employment uncertain.

However, it is now more difficult for union leaderships to call the
routine warning strikes of a few hours in order to sit down to
negotiate with the bosses later on, while the government approves of
the agreements and the mild climate of negotiations. Since the 1990’s,
big unions have lost more than 4 million members, tired of the policy
of submission to the bosses and betrayal of the workers’ interests, in
the face of persistent attacks by the bourgeoisie, and the new
middlemen, apparently more militant, like the GdL, find themselves
forced to appear more radical, to avoid continuing to lose legitimacy
among the rank and file.

We are at the beginning of a dynamic, that, if it increases, could
involve a profound change in the relation between capital and labor
that, if it goes beyond its characteristic economic demands, could
progress to a directly political confrontation against the bosses of
state enterprises tied to the coalition government, especially the
SPD, and at the same time overcome the union bureaucracy.

The paradigm shift underway gained strength with the railroad strike
that overturned the relationship between government, capital and
labor. This political crisis, that is framed by the more general
crisis of the social democracy, also threatens to sweep away the rest
of the parties, pillars of the postwar order.

Workers’ struggles: a "rapidly spreading fire"

The railroad strike started with the demand for a 31% wage raise,
plus a reduction of the workday and recognition of the small GdL
union, which is not a part of the German union confederation (DGB), as
a negotiator representing the engine drivers and ended with an 11%
wage raise, reduction of the work week by one hour and recognition of
the union as a negotiator. Another collateral effect of the struggle
of the railway workers organized in the GdL is the fact that the DB
(German railway company) agreed to a wage raise for members of the
other union present, Transnet, which had not gone on a strike for a
single minute, in an attempt to relieve pressure and avoid a possible
radicalization of its members.

The nervousness and virulence of the attacks by the union bureaucracy
against the leaders of the GdL is explained by the fact that workers
in Germany are beginning to demand that the raise compensate for the
wage liquidation of recent years, giving rise to a "rapidly spreading
fire that has given courage back to many workers and employees in all
branches," in the words of a trade unionist [1]. This is the situation
as the service workers of T-Punkt (Deutsche Telekom) stores will
receive a wage raise of 3.8%, plus a one-time bonus of 650 euros after
having carried out innumerable warning strikes; the metalworkers
achieved a 5.2% wage raise and a one-time bonus of 200 euros for a
year. Massive support for the IG-Metall strike and the increased
tendency to struggle expressed, were sufficient for the bosses to
agree to workers’ demands before strikes became active. And the fact
is, the metalworkers’ bosses could not afford the luxury, faced with
productive capacities used to the max and the books full of losses.
The outcome of negotiations in the metallurgical sector appalled the
German bosses, who, facing many negotiations to come, shuddered to
think that the workers could begin to reverse the capitalist successes
of recent years. That is why the head of the union of employers’
federations, Dieter Hundt, stated that the result "absolutely cannot
be applied to other branches of the economy" [2].

The strike wave that has erupted against demands by municipal bosses
and the federal state for a longer workday without wage compensation,
is enormous and unusual because of its massive nature and attitude. In
the service sector, in two transitory strike waves, first 18,000 and
then 22,000 workers went on strike. Next to transportation, children’s
day-care centers, hospitals, administration and city trash pickup,
groups of airport workers also went on strike.

In Berlin, the call for a strike of indefinite duration for a 12% wage
raise by ver.di for the public transportation sector, was a
symptomatic example of this "new reality" that is beginning to appear.
The ver.di union, under pressure from the massive exodus of members to
the GdL union in the public transportation sector, had found itself
forced to make its demands more radical. The counter-offensive by the
Berlin Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK), alongside of the
communications media, was not slow in coming. Under the slogan, "Break
up the BVG," which encouraged privatization of the transport firm, the
bosses were aiming at avoiding what they called ver.di’s "blackmail"
in Berlin.

While the bosses are increasing their attacks against workers, the
ver.di union bureaucracy ended up signing the collective contract for
1.3 million state and municipal employees. The problem is that ver.di
ended up "entering into partnerships" in pursuit of "social peace."
Now the workers are the ones who, contrary to their initial demand,
will scarcely get a "compensation to cover inflation" [3], without
compensating for what was lost in the last ten years. Moreover, the
workers will have to work one hour more per week, and none of those
laid off will be rehired. The bosses breathed a sigh of relief, since
a strike in the "sensitive sectors" of the German economy, like the
energy firms or hospitals, was averted.

The government of the "Left" ("Die Linke") in practice

The workers have to fight not only against the bosses and their
treacherous union leaderships but also against those leaders that say
they want to govern by respecting the interests of the dispossessed.
In Berlin, the SPD and the "Left" ("die Linke"), displaying their
cynicism, disparage the struggle of the workers, by seeking to divide
them between the more senior privileged workers (90%) and the newer
ones, who face uncertain employment (10%), by "including" the demands
of the newer employees and criticizing those of the more senior ones
for being "privileged."

Thus, the reformist alternative of the "new" social democracy - Die
Linke - ends where the historic social democracy - the SPD - had just
begun: in increasing the uncertainty of employment of broad sectors of
the population and increasing ideological support of a state whose
only remaining "social" characteristic is that it, the state, is
represented by social democrats.

* * *

The railway workers are organized into three unions:

• Transnet unites the bulk of the employees in stations, ticket
offices and workers on the tracks.

• GDBA represents state employees who were hired before the
privatization of the federal railroads in 1994.

• GDL (Union of German Engine Drivers) unites engineers, conductors
and stewards on trains.

The first two unions formed a wage pact, by agreeing with the bosses
on a wage raise of 4.5%. It is important to emphasize that each union
raises its own demands, but exclusively for its own members.

Translation by Yosef M.


[1] Die GDL im Nacken. junge Welt, 08.03.2008.

[2] T-Punkt-Beschäftigte erhalten mehr Geld. junge Welt, 07.03.2008.

[3] For 2008, there will be an increase of 3.1%, and in 2009, 2.8%
more wages. To this is added a fixed amount of 50 euros, and in 2009 a
one-time bonus of 225 euros.