KARSTADT, OPEL, VOLKSWAGEN: the need for workers solidarity against the logic of bankrupt capitalism

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What is the most effective means of struggle, when one’s “own” job or plant is no longer considered to be profitable? Does the strike weapon lose its effectiveness, where the capitalist in any case intends to close the plant, or when whole companies are on the verge of bankruptcy? Such questions are being posed today very concretely, not only at Opel, Karstadt or Volkswagen, but everywhere, as a result of the capitalist economic crisis, plants and companies are being “rescued” or shut down. And nowadays, that is taking place everywhere. Not only in Germany, but in America and also in China. Not only in industry, but also in the hospitals or the civil services.

The Need to Struggle – But How?

Already during the mid 1980s big defensive struggles took place against mass redundancies. For instance at Krupp Rheinhausen or in the British coal mines. At that time, whole branches of industry such as mining, steel or ship building were virtually shut down.

But today, unemployment and plant closures have become ever-present. This has led, at first, to a widespread feeling of intimidation. Lay-offs have mostly been accepted without resistance. However, the struggle this summer at DaimlerChrysler set a new signal. There, the employees hit back spectacularly against the attempts of the bosses to blackmail them. The solidarity actions, in particular of the workers in Bremen, with their fellow workers under direct attack in the Stuttgart-Sindelfingen plant, demonstrated that the workers are fighting back against the attempts to play them off against each other.

And now, the strike action at Opel above all in Bochum, as a first response to the announcement of mass lay offs, has again underlined the determination not to passively accept mass redundancies.

Nevertheless, the question of the possibilities and goals of the struggle under such circumstances has to be posed. We know that the struggle at DaimlerChrysler, like the ones at Krupp Rheinhausen or of the British miners in the 1980s, ended in defeat. And we have seen again and again – today also – how the trade unions and the factory council, whenever the workers put up resistance, also adopt the language of struggle, but at the same time declare that there is no alternative to submitting to the logic of capitalism. What is at stake, they claim, is to avoid things coming to the worst. They want to put through the “rescue” of the company, they say, and therefore the necessary sackings, in the most “social” manner possible. Thus the settlement at the Karstadt-Quelle department store chain, where the direct elimination of 5,500 jobs, the selling off of 77 stores, and horrendous wage cuts (“saving” 760 million Euros up to 2007) were agreed to, was presented by the Verdi union as a victory for the workers.

For at least two centuries, wage labour and capital has been fighting over wages and working conditions i.e. about the degree of exploitation of wage labour by capital. Had the exploited not always struggled, from one generation to the next, the workers of today would be little better than slaves who can be exploited at the bosses’ will or even worked to death.

But in addition to this question of the degree of exploitation, which was also posed for the slaves and serfs of earlier times, the modern economy poses a second problem, which only appears when the market economy and wage labour are dominant. Here, the question is: what is to be done, when the owner of the means of production is no longer able to profitably exploit the labour power of the labourer? Throughout the history of capitalism, this question has always been directly posed to the unemployed. But today, with a chronic crisis of overproduction on the world market, when the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production is becoming increasingly visible, this becomes a question of life or death for all wage labourers.

The perspective of the working class against the perspective of capital

The employers, the politicians, but also the trade unions and the factory councils – all those who are involved in the management of the plant, the company or the state – consider the workers and employees as part of a given company, whose welfare is inseparably dependent on the interests of the employer. From this point of view, it is of course always harmful when “company members” oppose the profit interests of the company. After all, the company only exists in order to make profits. Following on from this logic, the chairman of the general factory council of Opel, Klaus Franz, declared categorically, from the outset: “We know that lay-offs cannot be avoided.” That is the logic of capitalism. But it is not the only possible standpoint, from which one can consider the situation. If you approach things, not as the problem of Opel or of Karstadt, or of Germany, but as a problem of society as a whole, completely different perspectives emerge. If you consider the world, not from the point of view of a single plant or company, but from the point of view of society, from the point of view of human well being, the victims no longer appear as belonging to Opel or Karstadt, but as part of a social class of wage labourers, who are the main victims of the capitalist crisis. Seen from this perspective, it then becomes clear that the sales woman at Karstadt in Herne, the production line man at Opel in Bochum, but also the unemployed worker in eastern Germany or the almost enslaved, illegal construction worker who has come from the Ukraine, share a common fate and interest – not with their exploiters, but with each other.

The side of capital is aware that this other perspective exists. It is precisely this other perspective which it fears. The ruling class knows: As long as the workers at Opel or Volkswagen see the problem only from the point of view of Opel or VW, they will in the end “come to reason”. But when the workers find their own perspective, when they discover their common interest, completely different perspectives of struggle arise.

Adopting the viewpoint of society as a whole

This is why the representatives of capital are always trying to persuade us that the catastrophes caused by their economic system are the result of the “inadequacies” and “specificities” of each company or country. Thus they claim that the problems at Karstadt are the result of bad sales strategies. Opel, for its part, is supposed to have failed to follow the example of DaimlerChrysler or Toyota, who have been successful with the development of new, attractive, often diesel run models. It is also claimed that the fact that 10,000 of the 12,000 jobs scheduled by General Motors for elimination in Europe will be in Germany, is a kind of revenge of the American bourgeoisie for the German Iraq policy! As if DaimlerChrysler had not similarly blackmailed its employees just a few months ago! As if German companies, for instance Karstadt-Quelle, don’t sack their workers just as mercilessly! Reality itself disproves such arguments. On October 14th, not only the elimination of thousands of jobs at Karstadt was decided on, and announced at Opel, but the perspective of similar cuts at the “Spar” supermarket chain was revealed. And the same day, news of a new “rescue” round at the Dutch company Philips was leaked.

When, on the “black Thursday” of October 14th, it was announced that in all 15,500 jobs are to be axed at Karstadt-Quelle and Opel in the coming three years, the “negotiating partners”, the politicians and the “commentators” were in a great hurry to carefully distinguish between the two cases.

One might expect that where the employees of two major concerns are facing exactly the same fate, the similarity of the situation and the interests of the workers affected, would predominate. But exactly the opposite is presented. As soon as the leading negotiator for the Verdi trade union, Wiethold, had, on Thursday afternoon, almost joyfully announced the “rescue” of Karstadt, the media immediately gave out the message: Now that the future of Karstadt has been assured, Opel is left as the remaining worry. While the staff of the department store chain are thus supposed to go back in “relief” to their jobs, it is allegedly only the workforce at Opel which has to worry about its future.

But the only difference in the situation of the employees of the two companies is that the terrible attacks, which are already decided on at Karstadt-Quelle – mass redundancies, partial closures, massive blackmail of the work force – are still pending at Opel. Both work forces are expected to accept wage cuts to the tune of a total of 1.2 billion Euros, are in part to lose their livelihood, in order to save profits – not jobs!

The assertion that the situation of the Karstadt employees is fundamentally different from that at Opel is completely unfounded. For the Karstadt workers, in any case, nothing has been “saved”. Verdi speaks of a “rescue job, which deserves the name”, and a “success for the workers” because an “employment guarantee” has been given, and the wage contract saved. That is what it sounds like when the defeats of the working class are sold as victories. What value do “job guarantees”, wage contracts and other promises have, when even multi-national companies are fighting for their survival? In reality the victims of the rescue of Karstadt are still in exactly the same situation as the workers at Opel, but also Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Siemens or in the public sector.

The negotiations at Karstadt were concluded in such a hurry because it was known that General Motors was going to announce its salvaging plan for Europe October 14th. Until now, it always belonged to the unwritten laws of the ruling class never to simultaneously attack several big sectors of the working class, in order to avoid encouraging the appearance of a feeling of workers’ solidarity. But today, the sharpening of the crisis of world capitalism limits more and more this consecutiveness of attacks. Under such circumstances, the bourgeoisie at least wanted to assure that on the day, when the bad news broke from Detroit, Karstadt could be presented as a “success”.

The methods of solidarity in the struggle

Mass redundancies, the threat of bankruptcy, do not mean that the strike weapon has become superfluous. The downing of tools at Mercedes or Opel are an important signal, a call to struggle.

Nevertheless, it is unfortunately true that in such situations, the strike as a means of intimidating one’s opponent, loses much of its effectiveness. The struggle of the unemployed, for instance, has in any case to do without this weapon. But also, where the exploiters intend to get rid of those whom they exploit, the strike loses a good part of its menacing power.

The means which we need in face of the present level of the attacks of capital is the mass strike of all workers. Such a defensive action of the whole working class would give the class the self confidence it needs to counter the arrogance of the ruling class. Moreover, such massive mobilisations would be able to change the social climate, promoting the recognition that human needs have to become the guideline of society.

This putting in question of capitalism would in turn increase the determination of the employees and the unemployed, to defend their interests in the here and now.

Of course, such massive, common, solidarity actions are not yet possible. But this in no way means that one cannot struggle and achieve something now. But it is necessary to recognise that the strike is not the only weapon of the class struggle. Everything which, here and now, promotes the recognition of the common interests of all workers, and everything which revives the tradition of workers’ solidarity, scares the ruling class, makes it less self-assured in its attacks, making our opponent more obliged to make at least temporary concessions.

In 1987 the workers at Krupp Rheinhausen, threatened with the closure of the plant, opened up their daily assemblies to the population, to the workers of other plants and to the unemployed. Today it is even more unacceptable that the workers at Opel, Karstadt, Spar or Siemens don’t come together to discuss their common situation. During the mass strike of 1980 in Poland, the workers of a whole city came together on the grounds of the biggest factory in each town. There, they raised common demands and took their struggle in their own hands.

The struggle at Mercedes already demonstrated, what the attacks at Opel or Karstadt have confirmed – the great feeling of solidarity of the working population with those under attack. Under such circumstances, demonstrations through the cities can become a means of calling out the workers of other plants and the mobilising of the unemployed, developing a common solidarity.

The Mercedes struggle also showed that the workers are beginning to understand that, in face of mass redundancies, they must not allow themselves to be divided up. Even the capitalists have had to realise that they can no longer try and split the workers in such a gross manner as between Stuttgart and Bremen last summer. The Opel general factory council announced, in face of the attacks, the priority of the unity of the different General Motors plants. But what does it mean when Social Democrats and Trade Unionists speak of solidarity? Since these institutions are part and parcel of capitalist society, “unity” in their mouths can only mean that the different plants, while competing against each other, try to agree on prices. The chairman of the Opel factory council thus declared that he would be meeting with his Swedish colleague from Saab, to discuss which bid each of the plants would be making (against each other!) for the new GM models. The factory councils, like the trade unions, are themselves part of the capitalist competitive struggle.

The common struggle of the workers can thus only be waged by the workers themselves.

The need to call capitalism into question politically

Faced with the depth of the crisis of contemporary capitalism, the workers also have to overcome their unwillingness to deal with political questions. We don’t mean bourgeois politics here, but that the workers deal with the problems of society as a whole, and with the question of power.

The mass redundancies of today confront us with the reality of a society, in which we are not part of this or that company, but objects of exploitation, “cost factors” who can be pitilessly tossed aside. These attacks make clear what it means that the means of production do not belong to society as a whole, and do not at all serve the needs of society. Instead, they belong to a tiny minority. Above all, they are submitted to the blind and more and more destructive laws of competition and the market, which plunge an ever growing part of humanity into pauperisation and unbearable insecurity. Laws which undermine the most elementary rules of human solidarity, without which, in the long run, no society is possible. And the wage labourers, who produce almost all the goods and services which humanity needs to live, slowly are beginning to realise that under this social order they have nothing to say.

The crisis at Karstadt or Opel is not the result of bad management, but the expression of a long drawn-out, chronic, destructive overproduction crisis developing from decade to decade. This crisis leads to the dwindling of the purchasing power of the working population. This in turn hits retailing, the car industry, the whole of industry harder and harder. Accentuated competition obliges the capitalists to lower their costs, which further reduces mass purchasing power, and further sharpens the crisis.

Within capitalism, there is no way out of this vicious circle.

ICC. 15.10.2004