Daimler/Chrysler: The answer to the capitalist crisis, workers' solidarity

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In mid-July Daimler-Chrysler in Germany posed an ultimatum to 41,000 workers in Sindelfingen (Stuttgart) to agree to wage cuts and changes in working conditions or have production of a new Mercedes transferred to South Africa. This lead to strikes and demonstrations by 60,000 (out of 160,00) Daimler workers across Germany, with great expressions of anger and solidarity from other workers. The IG Metall union and Daimler soon stitched up a deal which provoked further anger from workers shouting that the union had no right to sign such a deal in their name. This was a defeat for the workers, but they do know that the union was involved. This article is from Welt Revolution 125, the ICC's publication in Germany, and was distributed as a leaflet when company/union negotiations were still going on. The ICC in Germany has never had such an enthusiastic reception to a leaflet, which confirmed that the question of militant solidarity is really being posed in the working class.

The employers seem to have got what they were aiming for. Millions of wage labourers have been sent off on holidays with the news that Europe's biggest industrial company, at the main Mercedes plant at Stuttgart-Sindelfingen, is soon going to be 'saving' production costs of half a billion Euro yearly at the expense of its employees. They want to let us all know that even where companies are still making a profit, workers have become extremely liable to being blackmailed through the threat of transferring production elsewhere, and of massive lay-offs. During the holiday period we are supposed to resign ourselves to the fact that we will soon all have to work longer for less money. Precisely at the moment when the workforce disperses for the major summer break when, in isolation, the feeling of powerlessness is particularly strongly felt, they want to force down our throats the recognition that a breach has been made. A breach at the expense of the workers which effects not only the work force at Daimler-Chrysler but all wage slaves. The market economy offers nothing but pauperisation, insecurity and endless drudgery

Only a few weeks after the staff of the Siemens plants in Bocholt and Kamp-Lintfort were blackmailed into accepting a return to the 40 hour week without any wage compensation; after Bavaria had taken the lead in extending the working day, also in the public sector, again without any pay compensation, the employers have now begun to clamour - depending on their situation - for a 40, a 42, or even for a 50 hour week. At Karstadt for instance (a department store chain) the workers were told: either you work a 42 hour week or 4000 jobs will be eliminated. Whether in the construction sector, at MAN or at Bosch - everywhere similar demands are being raised.

The experience of the past weeks thus confirms what more and more wage labourers are beginning to feel: that the much praised 'market economy' (with or without the predicate 'social') has nothing else in store for us but pauperisation, insecurity and endless drudgery.

The spectre of workers' solidarity

But in addition to this bitter but necessary recognition there are other lessons of the conflicts of the past weeks which have to be drawn and assimilated. The ruling class wants us to draw from the struggle at Daimler-Chrysler the conclusion that there is no point in putting up resistance; that the logic of capitalist competition will impose itself one way or the other, so that it would be better to submit from the onset; that after all the exploiters and the exploited all sit in the same boat in "maintaining employment in Germany".

But from the point of view of the working population there are quite different conclusions to be drawn. More than 60,000 employees of Daimler-Chrysler throughout Germany have participated in the past few days in strikes and protest actions. Workers from Siemens, Porsche, Bosch and Alcatel have participated in demonstrations in Sindelfingen. This struggle has shown that the workers have begun to return to the path of struggle. Taking into consideration the suffering and misery held in store for the workers of the whole world in the coming years, we can understand that the most important thing now is not the fact that, once again, the capitalists have managed to impose their will. More importantly, this time, the attacks were not passively accepted.

The most important thing of all is the following: when Daimler-Chrysler threatened the employees at Sindelfingen, Untert�rkheim and Mannheim with the transfer of the production of the new S-class model to Bremen from 2007 on, it consciously aimed at playing off the workers of the different plants against each other. The fact that the employees in Bremen participated in the protest actions against wage cuts, longer working hours and the elimination of breaks in Baden-W�rttemberg, thwarted this strategy of the employers. This at least began to make clear that our answer to the crisis of capitalism can only lie in workers' solidarity. This solidarity is the force which makes our struggle possible, and which gives it its meaning.

The ruling class wants to give us the impression that the struggle at Mercedes was a pointless exercise which did not impress it in the least. But if you examine the events more closely, all the indications suggest that the ruling class is indeed worried about the commencement of working class resistance. It fears above all that the dispossessed will recognise that solidarity is not only the most effective weapon in the defence of their own interests, but in addition contains the fundamental principle of an alternative, higher form of social order.

A concerted action of the capitalist class

It was anything but a coincidence that the return to a 40 hour week at Siemens in the Ruhr area was immediately followed by the massive public challenge to the work force of Daimler-Chrysler. The case of Siemens was meant to serve as a demonstration that, whenever there is the threat of the closure of a plant, the workers will not only have to put up with worsened working and pay conditions, but also with longer working hours. At Mercedes in Stuttgart, on the contrary, there is - for the moment - no question of closing down the plant. This plant is still considered to be particularly efficient and profitable. Mercedes was chosen to put over a second message: that the boundless extension of the regime of exploitation applies not only where the company or the plant has its back up against the wall. It must apply everywhere. That was why Daimler was deliberately chosen, precisely because it is the flagship of German industry, the biggest concentration of the industrial working class in Germany, in the heart of Baden-W�rttemberg, with its many hundreds of thousands of engineering workers. In this way, the message of the capitalists was to come over loud and clear. This message is that if even such a strong group of workers, well known for their experience of struggle and their combativity, are not able to avert such attacks, than the other wage earners will certainly have to submit to them.

It's not for nothing that the employers combine their forces in so-called employers' confederations. They do so in order to co-ordinate their efforts against the working class. In addition, these confederations are fused with the whole of the state apparatus. This means that the strategy of the employers is embedded in a global strategy directed by the government at the national and provincial levels, and thus also by Social Democracy. In this process a kind of division of labour between the government and industry arises. Most of the 'reforms' decided on by the federal government and directly enforced by the state are scheduled during the first half of a term of office. These have, in the past two years, included the most incredible attacks against the living standards of the working population: the 'health reform', the 'Hartz' legislation against the unemployed, the 'relaxation' of employment protection laws etc. Now, on the other hand, the SPD is happy, in the period leading up to the next general elections, to let the employers take centre stage - in the hope that people will thus continue to identify with the state, go and vote, and not completely lose confidence in the SPD.

We should therefore not allow ourselves to be misled by the SPD when it now declares that its sympathies lie with the workers of Daimler-Chrysler. In reality, the present attacks in the enterprises are directly linked to the 'reforms' by the federal government. It was probably no coincidence that the much publicised sending of the new questionnaire to the unemployed (aimed at finding out about and mobilising all the financial resources of the unemployed and their families as a means of cutting benefits) took place at the same moment as the imposition of the attacks at Daimler. The lowering of unemployment benefits to the level of the social aid minimum and the enforced surveillance and control of the unemployed serves not only to "unburden" the state budget at the expense of the poorest of the poor. It also serves to intensify the effectiveness of all the available means of blackmail against the still employed. To them it is to be made clear that if they do not shut up and accept everything, they will themselves be plunged into a bottomless poverty.

The nervousness of the ruling class in the face of workers' solidarity

But the fact that the attacks of capital are not going to be accepted without a fight is proven not only by the protests at Daimler, but also by the way the ruling class reacted to them. It soon became clear that the politicians, the trade unions, the factory union councils and also the employers had realised that the conflict at Daimler ought to be resolved as quickly as possible. The capitalist strategy was originally orientated towards playing off Stuttgart and Bremen against each other. The resistance of the workers most immediately under attack in the south-east of Germany was to be expected. But what apparently came as a surprise was the enthusiasm with which other workers above all in Bremen, participated in the movement. The spectre of workers' solidarity, long considered dead and buried, threatened a comeback. In the face of this, the representatives of the capitalists began to get visibly nervous.

Thus, spokesmen of all the political parties represented in parliament - including the Liberals of the FDP, the self-declared party of the rich - began to call on the management of Daimler-Chrysler to offer to renounce part of its earnings. Of course, such a measure is nothing but a hoax. Since the board of directors itself decides its salary, it always has the power to compensate for this 'renunciation'. Moreover, it does not help workers who can no longer afford education for their children, or the mortgage on their flat, to know that someone like J�rgen Schrempp (Daimler's CEO) may eventually be pocketing a million more or less.

It is more interesting to consider the question as to why the political leadership is presently calling for this gesture from the board of directors. They are calling for it in order to prop up the ideology of social partnership, which threatens to suffer when a bitter labour conflict is underway.

That is also why the politicians lashed the arrogance of the Daimler bosses. The problem of the present situation, where the employers have taken the initiative as the attackers, whereas the state has tried to stay in the background, disguising itself as a neutral force, becomes visible. A manager like Schrempp or Hubbert does not have the sensibility of an experienced Social Democrat when it is a matter of demonstratively inflicting a defeat on the workers, while on the other hand avoiding provoking them too much. Above all, the ruling class is afraid that the workers might start thinking too much about their own struggle and about the perspective of their lives under capitalism. In this context, the criticism made by Chancellor Schr�der is significant: "My advice is to settle these matters in the enterprises, and talk about them as little as possible" (our emphasis).

Since the collapse of Stalinism - a particularly inefficient, rigid, over- regimented form of state capitalism - in 1989, it has been repeated ad nauseam that there is no longer any perspective of socialism, and that class struggle and the working class no longer exist. But nothing is more likely than widespread workers' struggles to prove to the world that neither the working class itself nor the class struggle are things of the past.

The divisive policies of the unions and the media

We do not want to overestimate the struggles at Daimler. These struggles were not at all sufficient to prevent the capitalist "breach". One reason for this is because the conflict essentially remained limited to the Daimler workers. The whole of history proves that only the extension of the struggle to other parts of the working class is able to even temporarily make the ruling class back down. Another problem was that at no time did the workers even begin to contest or put in doubt trade union control. The IG Metall and the local factory council once again proved themselves adept masters at placing at the centre of attention everything which distinguishes the situation at Mercedes from that of other wage labourers: the profitability of one's 'own' concern, the full order books of one's 'own' plant, the much praised efficiency of the Baden-W�rttemberg metal workers. In this way, a far-reaching, more active solidarity with the rest of the working class was blocked off. The media, for their part, also took up the same theme from the other end, tying to spread envy against the Daimler workers who were presented as being particularly priveleged. It was striking that, for instance, the media reported daily from Sindelfingen (where the zebra crossings made of carrara marble rarely failed to be mentioned) whereas the situation in Bremen (where the element of solidarity had most strongly come to the fore) was blacked out.

Even before management had gone public with its demand for yearly savings of half a billion, the general works council of Daimler had already itself proposed an austerity package to the tune of 180 million Euro per annum. And as soon as management had agreed to the hoax of also making sacrifices, IG Metall and the factory council presented their agreement to a "global package" which in all points fulfilled the original demands of the company, and then presented this as a victory for the workers, which allegedly achieved a "job guarantee" for all.

It is not because they are evil that the unions divide up the workers and defend the interests of the employers at the expense of the employees, but because they themselves have long since become part and parcel of capitalism and its logic. This means that workers' solidarity and the extension of struggles can only be achieved by the workers themselves. This in turn requires sovereign mass assemblies and a method of struggle directed towards different sectors of the employed and the unemployed coming together. This can only be achieved independently and against the resistance of the unions.

The first signs of a real combat

We are still very far removed from such an autonomous mode of struggle based on active solidarity. Nevertheless, today we can already find the seeds of such future struggles. The Daimler workers themselves were quite conscious that they were fighting not only for themselves, but for the interests of all workers. It is also incontestable that their struggle - despite all the hate campaigns about the alleged privileges in Sindelfingen - has met with the sympathy of the working population as a whole, such as has not been witnessed in Germany since the struggles of Krupp Rheinhausen in 1987.

At that time, the "Kruppianer" at least began to pose the question of the active extension of the struggle to other sectors, as well as beginning to think about contesting the trade union control of the struggle. The fact that today these questions are not yet really posed shows how much ground the working class has lost in the past 15 years, not only in Germany, but world-wide. But on the other hand struggles such as at Krupp, or that of the British miners, represented the end of a series of workers' struggles which lasted from 1968 to 1989, but were then followed by a long period of reflux. The present struggles, on the contrary - whether in the public sector in France and Austria last year, or now at Daimler - are merely the beginning of a new series of important social struggles. These struggles will develop in a much slower and more difficult manner than in the past. Today, the crisis of capitalism is much more advanced, the general barbarism of the system much more visible, the threatening calamity of unemployment much more omnipresent.

But today, much more than was the case with Krupp-Rheinhausen, the great sympathy of the wage-earning population with the workers in struggle is more directly linked to the slowly dawning recognition of the seriousness of the situation. The ruling class - and its unions - are busy presenting the presently imposed lengthening of the working day as a temporary measure in order to hold onto jobs until the economy has "regained competivity". But the workers are beginning to guess that what is happening is more and more fundamental than that. Indeed! What is happening is that the acquisitions, not only of decades, but of two centuries of workers' struggles, are threatened with being thrown overboard. What is happening is that the working day, like in the early days of capitalism, is being lengthened more and more - but in the context of the working conditions of modern capitalism with its hellish intensity of labour. What is happening is that, more and more, human labour power, as a source of the wealth of society, is being exhausted and in the long term worked to death. In contrast to early capitalism this is not the birth pangs of a new system, but is the expression of a moribund capitalism which today has become the obstacle to the progress of humanity. In the long term, today's uncertain efforts towards workers' resistance, towards the revival of solidarity, go hand in hand with a deeper reflection. This can and must lead to putting this barbaric system into question and to the perspective of a higher, socialist world system.

Welt Revolution, 22/7/04.

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