Workers' struggles in Germany: an accumulation of discontent

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The last five years have witnessed an international development of the class struggle. These struggles have taken place in response to the brutality of the capitalist crisis and the dramatic worsening of living and working conditions across the world. Today, entering a new stage of the crisis, announced by the property crisis in the United States, we can expect a intensification of these struggles. In some of the countries where workers' conditions are most miserable - Egypt, Dubai, Bangladesh - we have already seen the germs of future mass strikes. In Europe reappeared in 2006 with the protests of students in France a proletarian protest movement with a mass character and tendencies towards self organisation.

At this moment, in Germany, we are witnessing the beginning of a new stage in this development. In a leading industrial country of the old capitalist heartlands, a simultaneity of labour conflicts threaten to snowball into a real wave of workers' struggles.

A new year of discontent

The year 2008 began with the German railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) being obliged to grant an 11% wage rise and a one hour reduction of the working week to the train drivers. This was the result of months of smouldering conflict during which neither the outlawing of nation wide railways strikes nor the division of the DB workforce by the trade unions was able to erode. This was followed by the mobilisation in the Ruhr area around the closing of the Nokia mobile phone production. A day of action in solidarity with the Nokia employees in Bochum saw the mobilisation on the street of workers from countless different sectors and the sending of delegations from different parts of Germany. In particular, the workers at the Opel car plant in Bochum went on strike in support of the "Nokianer" that day.

By that that, the annual ritual of the annual wage negotiations had already begun. The rolling strikes by steel workers was followed by work stoppages by tens of thousands of public sector workers all over the country. By mid March, the doctors from the municipal hospitals were also taking to the streets, demanding, like so many other employees, a 12% wage increase.

But it is above all the unlimited all-out strike of local transport workers in Berlin which, since the end of the first week of March, has demonstrated that, this year, the wage negotiation rounds are directly challenging the capitalist offensive against the working class. This strike of 10.000 workers - already the largest and longest of its kind in post war German history - has manifested a combativity and determination which initially took the bourgeoisie by surprise. This conflict escalated at a moment when the German railways made a last attempt to back out of the concessions it had been obliged to make, and when the negotiations in the public sector were on the verge of breakdown. In the latter sector, the state is "offering" a 5% wage "increase" over 2 years to its employees, demanding in return an extension of the working week of two hours! In Berlin, where the whole of municipal transport is on strike except the suburban trains (S-Bahn, owned by the DB) the perspective suddenly opened of these latter employees, and the whole public sector, going on strike, not only in Berlin, but across the country! The ruling class had to pull the emergency brake.[1] The railway company gave in hours before the resumption of a national general strike of train drivers. At the same time, the federal and municipal employers and the trade union Verdi called in mediators in the public sector conflict, meaning that strikes there in the coming weeks are illegal. In this way, the government, the employers and the trade unions isolated the strike at the Berlin transport company (BVG).

But the potential for the simultaneity of workers' struggles to objectively pose their inter-linkage flows not alone from the general massive discontent about the fall in real wages. There is also an accumulation of mass redundancies. A few days after Nokia, the bankruptcy of the semi-state bank of the province of North-Rhine-Westphalia, the WestLB, was averted through a 2 billion Euro state salvaging operation. The cost for the employees: 2000 lay-offs, one third of staff, and massive wage cuts for the remainder. The same state which has handed out billions to prop up other credit institutes like the IKB in Düsseldorf or the provincial bank of Saxony is now telling public sector workers that there are no funds available to meet wage demands!

But in addition to the victims of the present property market earthquake, in the past weeks a number of industrial companies - Siemens, BMW, Henkel (Persil) - have announced record profits, and at the same time mass redundancies. The old lie to workers in companies in difficulty - that restoring profitability through "sacrifice" will save their jobs - has been shattered by reality.

These unprecedented attacks have led not only to first expressions of resistance this year: Nokia, but also the demonstrations of miners in the Saarland against pit closures[2]. They also help to undermine the propaganda of the ruling class. In the aftermath of the "national unity" campaign of the trade unions and the political class against the Finnish Nokia company, one of the favourite jokes of popular comedians and cabarettists concerns the horrible Finnish capitalist who run Siemens and the WestLB!

The politicisation of struggle

One of the most significant signs of the present maturation of the situation is the beginning of a more overt, conscious politicisation of the workers' struggle. Recent developments give us three important examples.

  1. The role of the Opel car plant in Bochum in the recent conflict at Nokia. It is true that the employees of Nokia felt demoralised and intimidated by the provocative brutality with which the shutting down of the plant was announced. It was to a large degree the massive intervention of the Opel workers at Nokia, calling on them to struggle, and promising to join any eventual strike, which made possible the mobilisation which took place. Already in 2004, a one week wildcat strike at Opel in Bochum prevented the closing down of their own plant. Today, the "Operaner" are determined to generalise this lesson to workers at large: workers resistance and solidarity pays! What we see here is the emergence of combative vanguards in big workers' concentrations, who are aware of their weight in the class struggle, and determined to throw it in for the benefit of workers at large. Another such concentration is that of Mercedes-Daimler, which already in the 1990s through a large scale strike prevented the cutting of sick leave payments by the Kohl government. In 2004 the Daimler workers who took to the streets in Stuttgart and Bremen against cuts in wages and benefits declared that they were struggling not only for themselves, but for all workers. We should also recall that Germany is still a country of huge companies and industrial concentrations, with millions of millions of highly skilled workers.
  2. The beginning of open confrontation between the workers and the left-control led organs of capital is concretised by the BVG transport strike in Berlin. This strike is not only in reaction to the present loss of real wages in face of rising inflation. The workers are also rebelling against the consequences of the wage agreement of 2005, which resulted in general wage cuts of 12%, a horrific worsening of working conditions, and the "outsourcing" of staff at even worse conditions. A deal which Verdi, the main trade unions in the sector, still vehemently defends. Being aware that the new wage "offer" the bosses were going to make would be a provocation for the workforce, Verdi scheduled a day of protest in advance, to take place in a Saturday towards the end of February in order to cause as little disruption as possible. But when the workers heard that their wages were to be frozen at the level of 2007, with increases only offered to those employed since 2005, they went on strike 24 hours before schedule, without waiting for union permission. Such is the indignation, not only about the factual wage cuts, but also in face of the obvious attempt to divide the workers, that Verdi has been obliged to abandon its search for a "cordial, negotiated settlement" and call an all-out strike. This strike has also led to an open confrontation with the "Red-Red" left coalition of Social Democracy and the left wing "Linkspartei" which rules Berlin. The latter party, which emerged from the Stalinist SED which once ruled East Germany, and is now expanding into former West Germany with the help of the former leader of the SPD, Oskar Lafontaine, denounces the strike as an expression of the "privileged mentality" of "pampered" West Berlin! This is going on at the very moment when powerful fractions of the German bourgeoisie are trying to establish the party of Lafontaine and Gysi as a fifth parliamentary force capable of diverting workers' discontent back onto the electoral terrain. No wonder that evening for evening the news on TV manages not to even mention a strike which is creating chaos in the capital city of the country!
  3. First internet blogs are appearing, where for instance railway workers express their admiration for and solidarity with the BVG strike. This is all the more important since in sectors like those of railway workers, pilots or hospital medical staff, where the weight of corporatism is particularly strong, the bourgeoisie is responding to the growing dissatisfaction with the established DGB trade unions through profiling pseudo-radical, but strictly corporatist unions. This is done not only to contain combativity in a union framework and prevent self organisation, but also to counteract political radicalisation. The train drivers' unions, GDL, presently the favourite of political leftism, is in fact a caricature of narrow parochialism and non-political conformism.

Growing role of the german proletariat

The German bourgeoisie has for decades been proud of its system of so-called wage negotiation autonomy, a strictly defined legal framework within which, on the basis of sectoral and regional division of the workers, bosses and trade unions impose the will of capital. Nevertheless, 2008 is not the first time in post war Germany that the working class has begun to put in question this bourgeois framework. From the September strikes of 1969 to the massive struggle at Ford Cologne in 1973, wildcat strikes contested the "agreements" imposed by unions and bosses. This autonomous intervention of the class was above all provoked by the consequences of inflation. Nor is it the first time that there have been workers' mobilisations and class solidarity in response to plant closures. In particular the struggle at Krupp Rheinhausen in 1987 has remained in the collective memory of the class.

But today we have both phenomena together. Inflation and the accumulation of the effects of years of real wage cuts have led to a generalised anger. Lay-offs and mass unemployment, while initially often having an intimidating effect on combativity, provoke an increasingly profound reflection about the nature of the capitalist system.

The present struggles are thus the continuation of those of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and need to consciously appropriate their lessons. But they are not only a continuation. They are also a deepening of this tradition of struggle. After 1968, Germany participated in the international recovery of class struggle. But it still lagged behind other countries on account of the particular brutality of the counter-revolution, and the initially greater capacity of Germany to resist the worst effects of the capitalist crisis.

As opposed to this, the German proletariat is presently beginning to join its class sisters and brothers in France and other countries at the head of the international class struggle.

Weltrevolution. March 14 2008.


[1] In recent years the "public hand" in Berlin broke with the negotiation "community" of the German provinces (Länder) in order to conduct wage negotiations on its own, and thus isolate the state employees there from their colleagues elsewhere. Background is the contemporary German specificity that the capital is not only the largest, but also the poorest major city in the country.

[2] For years now, mining in the Saar region has regularly provoked earthquakes often leading to considerable damage to property. Until now, this never bothered the ruling class. Now, all of a sudden, such an occurrence is providing a pretext to close down all remaining mines in the province.