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Germany: The Port Strike and the Fight Against Inflation Pose the Question of Strategy

Striking dockworkers at ports in northern Germany are spearheading the fight against inflation. What strategy is needed to lead them to victory? The answer resonates with impending battles in the United States.

Stefan Schneider

July 31, 2022
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Dock workers march holding red flags and wearing yellow and orange construction vests.
Dock workers in Hamburg marching on June 23. Photo: Axel Heimken/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Two weeks ago, thousands of dockworkers in the ports of northern Germany went on strike for the third time in just a few weeks. The 48-hour strike for wages that would cover the real inflation being felt by these workers was the longest work stoppage in the ports in more than 40 years — reason enough for the bosses in the port, and beyond, to tremble with fear for their profits and attack the right to strike. Some 17 injunctions have been sought in labor courts to stop the strike. Rainer Dulger, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA), went so far as to call for declaring a “national emergency” to make it easier to break strikes in the future. 

Even though the leadership of the ver.di union1Translator’s note: The Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft [United Services Trade Union] uses the stylized abbreviation ver.di for identification. It is the second-largest trade union in Germany, with around 2 million members. denounced these attacks, it ultimately accepted an out-of-court settlement in Hamburg that ruled out further strikes until August 26. This self-gagging was completely unnecessary — after all, the interim injunctions were shot down in other courts, and in the Hamburg case as well, and so the legal avenues were far from exhausted. But it does raise a question: What strategy is needed to actually win the battle in the ports?

The bosses’ attack on the right to strike, along with the caving of the ver.di leadership, has been met with tremendous discontent. This is clear from the several thousand signature collected on a petition in just a few days — many from dockworkers themselves. On top of this, the workers’ showed their willingness to fight with several actions. The day after the out-of-court settlement in Hamburg, for example, 5,000 workers took part in a demonstration and were attacked by the police with pepper spray. A work slowdown in Hamburg the following weekend, at facilities run by terminal operator Eurogate, kept almost all ships from being loaded and unloaded, as workers there told Klasse Gegen Klasse. These initial, progressive reactions show the enormous potential for what could unfold in the dockworkers’ struggle.

There a lot of reasons that explain the workers’ willingness to fight, as Jana Kamischke, shop steward at the Port of Hamburg, said in an interview:

The work is getting more and more intense, and there’s a staff shortage. The norm is 60 hours of overtime, or more, per month. Automation is destroying good-paying jobs and creating more and more precarious jobs. In addition to their permanent employees, the port operations in Bremerhaven and Hamburg include hundreds of nonpermanent employees — modern-day day laborers. Hourly wages range overall between 14 and 28 euros. It’s been a downward spiral for years. But with inflation, we’re not going to put up with it anymore.

The term “nonpermanent workers” is a legal construct that allows port companies to use hundreds and even thousands of workers every day in an ultra-flexible way as temporary workers — or not. Temporary employment has a long tradition in port work. Until the middle of the 20th century, it was the rule in many places. This form of employment was justified by the seasonal fluctuations in shipping and the difficulty of calculating the arrival of ships. Today, these workers are employed by the Gesamthafenbetrieb (GHB), which is nothing other than a temporary employment agency, which lends them out to individual member companies on a daily basis. These workers have an employment contract with vacation benefits and social security, but no guaranteed working hours. They receive a guaranteed wage from the GHB when they do work, but whether they are allowed to work is subject to the whims of the bosses.

As if that were not enough, the bosses are also trying to drive a wedge between workers who are unionized, by introducing wage tiers — as Jana Kamischke also explained:

The employers are offering 12.5 percent over 24 months, which is 6.25 percent over twelve months — and that’s exclusively for workers at the container terminals. But there are also lots of conventional operations and automobile handling there. Wages for the lower groups would rise only by 2.78 percent. That’s unacceptable.

Obviously, such wage increases are far from adequate. After all, the general inflation rate is already close to 8 percent, and price increases for rents, food, electricity and heating are far above that average. Low-income people, students, the unemployed, and welfare recipients are all especially affected by the wave of price increases, forced to spend a particularly large proportion of their income on food, energy, and rent.

Meanwhile, shipping companies are raking in record profits. Hamburg-based shipping line Hapag-Lloyd, for example, posted 4 billion euros in profits in the first quarter of 2022 alone. While transporting roughly the same number of containers as a year ago, Hapag-Lloyd doubled its freight rate. The Hamburg-based company HHLA generated 228.2 million euros in profits in 2021 — an increase of more than 80 percent. Particularly explosive is the fact that the city of Hamburg has a stake in both Hapag-Lloyd and HHLA, in which it holds the majority of shares. HHLA was responsible for 11 of the 17 injunctions against the strike. In Bremen, the logistics group BLG is majority-owned by the state. In other words, the increasing precariousness in the ports and the attacks on the right to strike express not only the profit motive of individual capitalists, but state policy as well.

The Port as a “Strategic Position”

The reason for this is obvious: port logistics are central to capitalist profit — not only those of the port companies themselves, but also of a large component of the capitalists as a whole. The more containers that can be handled, the greater the profit not only for HHLA and others, but also for all capitalists, because their intermediate and end products circulate more quickly. Conversely, supply chain bottlenecks, which have increased significantly since the pandemic and are helping drive inflation, show what happens when logistics falter.

Workers at the ports hold what historian John Womack defines as a strategic position, that is, one that “allows some workers to determine the production of many others, whether within a company or throughout the economy.”2John Womack Jr., Posición estratégica y fuerza obrera (Mexico City: FCE, 2007), 50. Translator’s note: The Womack quote is from a translation of a work he wrote originally in English but that is currently unavailable for citation. Thus, the translation here is of German that was translated from Spanish, and the English may not correspond precisely to the wording of the original. Although Womack applies this definition only to the relationship between employee and boss, something more general can be derived from it: If the working class holds all the basic strategic positions in production, distribution, and service, it has enormous potential to change the relationship of forces between labor and capital as a whole, and to pose the question of power in the struggle against the capitalists and their state. Of course, “strategic positions” can be used on a purely economic level, but they can also be an enormous force in developing workers’ hegemony in the struggle against the capitalist system as a whole.

Whether this happens, though, is not a foregone conclusion. As a class, the position of the proletariat in the capitalist production process is already a given. Whether it uses its position — for what program and with what strategy — is another matter.

This brings us to the central point of this article. The strikes in the port are strategically significant in several respects. They are being used to negotiate who should pay the costs of the inflationary crisis: the capitalists or the workers. It is particularly important to resist the bosses’ attempts to divide the workers, and so it would be fatal to accept inflation-related compensation only for the higher-wage groups of workers who hold the most important levers at the container terminals, while the precarious sectors at the ports get practically nothing. The point is that the dockworkers who can exert the most pressure through their strike are not only striking for themselves in a corporate sense, but together with the precarious sectors — such as the nonpermanent workers — that capitalism can replace more quickly. But the argument can also be generalized: the dockworkers are faced with the task not only of winning the struggle for inflation compensation themselves, but of joining forces with all sectors of the working class that are already engaged in struggle or will be in the coming months, and of establishing a hegemonic program against inflation, crisis, and war.

The starting point for such a program must be the demand for immediate increases in wages and fixed payments, pensions, and benefits above the level of inflation, and automatic wage adjustments pegged to price increases. At the same time, it must raise the issue of government-imposed price caps, under the control of committees of workers and consumers, as part of the fight against increases in the cost of living. Of necessity, this poses further the question of opening the books of corporations as a way to control where their profits go. Corporations that raise prices or announce layoffs and closures while making profits, for example, must be expropriated without compensation and nationalized under workers’ control.

The looming winter crisis makes these demands more urgent than ever for millions of people. A nationalized energy supply could be planned democratically, making it possible to ensure that no households suffer. Such a perspective could also be generalized to include the nationalization of all key industries and the banking sector under workers’ control.

The worsening of the economic crisis stems from the imperialist escalation in Ukraine and the prospect of further crises and new wars. Standing idly by or limiting the fight only to wages is insufficient. The organizations of the working class must take the lead in the struggle against the war machine, promoting independent mobilization against the rearmament plans, the deployment of arms and troops abroad, the economic war being waged with sanctions, and the reactionary asylum policy that leaves refugees subjected to violence and deprivation. Here, too, the dockworkers hold a strategic position, since they can directly disrupt the logistics of war, putting themselves at the forefront of the struggle against the militaristic escalation that is putting the lives of millions of people at risk. There is already a petition circulating to hold a referendum against the transport and handling of arms through the port of Hamburg. The current labor dispute may provide an opportunity to broaden this initiative.

The starting point for this is promising, since the strikes in the port are part of a more general trend of strikes and other industrial action against inflation and the crisis unfolding in many European countries. This is developing unevenly, though, particularly in Germany. Here, wage strikes have thus far been stifled by the bureaucracy, with deals below the rate of inflation — as happened in the steel industry. Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness that an offensive struggle for higher wages is needed, as is evident in the Lufthansa strike — part of a wave of strikes in air transport throughout Europe — and in the upcoming round of collective bargaining by the IG Metall union, and prospectively in the negotiations for civil servant salaries (TVöD) slated for the winter.3Translator’s note: The Industriegewerkschaft Metall [Industrial Union of Metalworkers], better known as IG Metall, is Germany’s largest union and Europe’s largest industrial union. It represents workers in many industries, including mining and manufacturing (automobiles, steel, wood, plastics, textiles, and clothing), as well as electrical engineering and information systems. TVöD is a reference to Tarifvertrag im Öffentlichen Dienst [tariffs for German civil service employees], by which salaries for civil servants are determined based on experience and family situation. Civil service employees include teachers at all levels.

A Strategy Centered in Class Struggle that Challenges Reformist Mediation

If these early trends toward greater working-class activism and struggle are to be generalized, and if we are to overcome their gagging by the bureaucrats who control the union apparatuses, the discussion of strategy must be raised again, with full force.

The ver.di bureaucracy responded to the attack on the right to strike in the ports — an attack we’ve seen elsewhere, including the attempt by university clinics in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to get a court ban on strikes — by agreeing to an out-of-court settlement without any consultation with the workers or the bargaining committee. This ties the hands of the dockworkers until August 26, as negotiations continue to take place. Thus there is a very significant risk that a deal will be struck that doesn’t reflect the real relationship of forces.

For this reason alone, it is necessary to focus on a strategy of self-organization of the workers that goes beyond a negotiated solution by the union bureaucracy. To counter negotiations behind closed doors, without any rank-and-file influence, what’s needed is to organize open assemblies of all the dockworkers who are engaged in the struggle — unionized and unorganized, permanent and nonpermanent — to decide on the methods of struggle, what comes out of the negotiations, and whether to continue the strike. This includes discussing alternative forms of strikes, such as slowdowns, the challenge to the out-of-court settlement, and the need to unite the largest possible forces in a major organizing and fighting campaign against inflation and the overall effects of the crisis. At issue here is not only a victory at the ports, but how the struggle at the ports can become a beacon for the entire working class in Germany and throughout the world.

The strategic task at hand is not only for the dockworkers to free themselves from the grip of the apparatuses. What is posed is a decision about direction for the entire trade union movement and Left. On the one hand, there is submission to the strategy of the union bureaucracies and the reformist parties, which is aimed at negotiated settlements without major struggles, “concerted action” in partnership with the government, and isolating any real fights. On the other, there is pushing workers’ self-organization in the struggle for a hegemonic program to make the capitalists pay for the crisis, starting with uniting the entire union movement and Left in a grand Coordinating Committee aimed at combining the port struggle and every other fight in active solidarity, while imposing on the trade union bureaucracies a unity of action for these demands.

The task of promoting such coordination falls in particular to the Network for Fighting Trade Unions (VKG), which is holding a conference in early October on trade union strategies against wage cuts, social cutbacks, and rearmament, in Frankfurt. Even if support for the port strike cannot wait until then, it must play a central role at the conference.

This coordination is not just about tactical support for this or that strike, but is a central strategic task, as becomes clear from two aspects of the current situation. First, the union bureaucracy’s control over the struggle, and its cooptation to the interests of capital, is enormous — especially in sectors strategic for capital accumulation such as heavy industry and the ports. The fact that we haven’t seen port strikes like those today for 40 years is testament to the fact that the union bureaucracy has pushed through decades of backroom negotiations with the bosses without active struggles by the workers themselves. In fact, one of the current negotiators for the port capitalists is Torben Seebold, former head of ver.di’s own national maritime industry group. It is imperative to organize rank-and-file dockworkers against the bureaucracy, that is, to build an anti-bureaucratic fraction within ver.di that can challenge the bureaucracy and ultimately toss it out.

This also requires a break with the prevailing Left strategy focused on winning elections and grabbing parliamentary seats in an effort to help manage capitalist misery and make it more bearable from atop the bourgeois state. Of course, this is what the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is trying to do today, at the head of the “Dare More Progress” coalition: mitigate the effects of inflation with reformist promises. At the same time, it is implementing the biggest rearmament package in decades and making Germany a first-rank imperialist military power capable of subjugating Eastern Europe and other regions not only economically but also militarily.

This characterization also applies to the Left Party and the organizations of the extra-parliamentary Left that are connected with it either directly or indirectly.4Translator’s note: Die Linke [The Left, usually stylized to DIE LINKE] is a social democratic party in Germany that was founded in 2007 and traces its origins to the ruling party of the former German Democratic Party (GDR).. While throughout Europe we are seeing the beginning of a trend toward heightened class struggle, DIE LINKE is in the deepest crisis in its history and plays no role at all in the current struggles. Instead, it wobbles from one electoral defeat to the next. While Bernd Riexinger, the former party chairman, as well as some local units of its official youth group linksjugend [‘solid], supported the dockworkers collecting signatures in defense of their right to strike, no visible policy has yet emerged from the party. What’s more, DIE LINKE can always be found on the other side of the barricades. To take but one example, the party was part of the Berlin Senate, against which the strikes by hospital workers in that city were ultimately directed. And the Left Party is also part of the government in Bremen, where the city is the majority owner of the logistics company BLG — against which the dockworkers’ actions are directed.

At the time of DIE LINKE’s federal party conference in June, Klasse Gegen Klasse appealed to the militant wings of the party and organizations of the far Left to hold a socialist conference to discuss a balance sheet of the party conference. Following the example of the port strikes, we are now putting this proposal in more concrete terms, and coming together to discuss inflation, the fight against it, and a class-struggle perspective for the Left.

The starting point for any class-struggle perspective must be promoting the self-organization of workers independently of and in struggle against the bureaucracies of their own mass organizations — the trade unions — and against the state. This is possible only by breaking with the reformist strategy of focusing on elections and integration into the bourgeois state.

Leon Trotsky spelled out the alternative in The Lessons of October: “By strategy, we understand the art of conquest, i.e., the seizure of power.” He was all about combining all the elements to take the lead and win. That is, it is about gathering forces that allow us to unite all of them at the right moment to turn them against the ruling class, to break its will and impose the will of the exploited.

Today, the ruling class wants to make us pay for the costs of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the war in Ukraine. The struggle for wage increases in this or that factory is inseparable from this strategic perspective of enforcing the will of the exploited against the will of the ruling class. This means that the struggle at the ports is, on the one hand, a struggle against the effects of inflation (i.e., for higher wages) and, on the other hand, a struggle for the dockworkers to take matters into their own hands and impose a hegemonic alternative for the exploited and oppressed as a whole.

That is possible only if dockworkers overcome the limits imposed on them by the union bureaucracy. That, in turn, depends on whether the (revolutionary) Left will overcome the lesser-evilism of pacts with the union leaderships and co-management of the capitalist state, and instead situate its strategic center in the class struggle, set out to occupy the strategic positions, and use them in the fight against the bosses and the government.

First published in German on July 27 in Klasse Gegen Klasse.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes

Notes
1 Translator’s note: The Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft [United Services Trade Union] uses the stylized abbreviation ver.di for identification. It is the second-largest trade union in Germany, with around 2 million members.
2 John Womack Jr., Posición estratégica y fuerza obrera (Mexico City: FCE, 2007), 50. Translator’s note: The Womack quote is from a translation of a work he wrote originally in English but that is currently unavailable for citation. Thus, the translation here is of German that was translated from Spanish, and the English may not correspond precisely to the wording of the original.
3 Translator’s note: The Industriegewerkschaft Metall [Industrial Union of Metalworkers], better known as IG Metall, is Germany’s largest union and Europe’s largest industrial union. It represents workers in many industries, including mining and manufacturing (automobiles, steel, wood, plastics, textiles, and clothing), as well as electrical engineering and information systems. TVöD is a reference to Tarifvertrag im Öffentlichen Dienst [tariffs for German civil service employees], by which salaries for civil servants are determined based on experience and family situation. Civil service employees include teachers at all levels.
4 Translator’s note: Die Linke [The Left, usually stylized to DIE LINKE] is a social democratic party in Germany that was founded in 2007 and traces its origins to the ruling party of the former German Democratic Party (GDR).
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Stefan Schneider

Stefan is an education worker from Berlin and the editor of our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse.

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