In Germany and in France, the future is in preparation

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While the great struggle of the proletarian youth in France against the CPE was winning the sympathy and even the active support of the rest of the working class in that country, the coverage of the bourgeois media about the social situation in neighbouring Germany sounded like a report from another planet. With the petering out of the strikes of the garbage collectors and other employees of the public sector, of the nation wide doctors strike, and of initial token strikes and protests of the engineering workers, the propagandists of the ruling class were “regretting” the “end of solidarity” and the “look after number one” spirit supposedly reigning among the workers in Germany. They point out that whereas the public sector strikes aimed at maintaining the 38,5 working week, the doctors have walked out, not in order to shorten working hours of 60 and more, but to get them paid. And whereas, as far as the public sector is concerned, the only question seems to be, by how much incomes will be reduced, the engineering workers are demanding 5%, the doctors even 30% wage increases.

Thus, the present social situation in France and in Germany is being analysed by these commentators as follows: whereas the combativeness and solidarity west of the Rhine is identified as a relic of a long outmoded “revolutionary romanticism” specific to a French nation which has not yet arrived in the modern world, corporatist egoism is supposed to be the main feature of the situation in Germany, typical of both the present and the future.

The class struggle on the rise world wide

What is the reality of this description, which, superficially, appears to account for a number of well known facts? It is a fact that the class struggle generally develops more explosively and with a more openly political character in France than in Germany. It is true that this difference has something to do with history, whereby the élan of combat in France is less a product of the great bourgeois revolution of 1789 than of the mass struggles of the French proletariat – from the insurrections of June 1848 and the Paris Commune 1871 to the mass strike of May/June 1948. It is also true that the immediate potential for the extension of the workers struggle in Germany today is very slight in comparison with what it has been in France. Whereas in Germany the public sector, the doctors and the engineering workers have all kept to themselves in the framework of the traditional and regular wage negotiation rounds, carefully controlled and kept apart by the trade unions, the recent struggle of the proletarian youth in the schools and universities of France quickly took on the character of a mass movement. Whereas this youth tried for weeks to extend its struggle to the workers in the plants and offices, in Germany, even in workplaces where different sectors are involved in disputes at the same time (like the doctors and nurses of the university hospitals) there hasn’t even been a hint of a common struggle. And whereas in France the movement, especially at the beginning, was self organised, nowhere do we find in Germany at the moment mass assemblies organised  by the strikers themselves.

Those are the facts – or rather, some of the facts. But what are the determining facts? The determining facts are the increasingly evident bankruptcy of capitalism, the sharpening of the attacks against the working class of all countries, and the international resurgence of the class struggle. Once this is understood, what the social situations in France and Germany have in common becomes clear. Since the workers’ struggles of today are accompanied by a subterranean maturation in consciousness which occasionally appears on the surface, and is more and more being carried forward by a new generation, they are contributing to a process announcing and preparing the mass strikes of the future. The “secret” of the present situation both in France and in Germany lies in the – still embryonic – ripening of conditions for the mass strike as the typical proletarian form of struggle in the decadent phase of capitalism. The preparation of this development is recognisable in France via the mass nature of the university and school students’ struggles and their urge to extend the movement to the rest of the class. The same preparation manifests itself in Germany through the simultaneity of struggles in different sectors,  the drawing of new sectors into the struggle, such as the doctors, and in the leading role which the industrial proletariat in Germany is still playing in these struggles. But most important of all today is the simultaneity of struggles between these two central battalions of the European continental proletariat in the framework of a world wide recovery of workers’ struggles. At the same time as the struggles on both sides of the Rhine, over a million municipal employees have been taking action against pension cuts in Britain, Catholic and Protestant postal workers have been demonstrating together in Belfast, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers have been demonstrating in the USA against their illegal status. Only last year there was the big strike movement in Argentina, the spectacular walk out in the metro in New York and Stockholm, and at London’s Heathrow Airport. At the turn of the year there were the protests against mass redundancies at AEG in Nuremberg and SEAT in Barcelona etc. The same kind of situation arose at the beginning of the 20th century (centred on Russia in 1905), at the end of World War I, and in the years from 1968 onwards with the end of the Stalinist counter-revolution: the mass strike is not only always an international phenomenon, it is also always prepared world wide through a series of more or less significant skirmishes. As opposed to the general strike propagated sometimes by the trade unions and above all the Anarchists, where one fine day everybody downs tools at the same time, the mass strike develops over a whole period, and is concerned not only with the paralysis of the capitalist economy and the political apparatus of power, but at the same time with the maintenance of all the services necessary for the well being of the population or the conducting of the struggle.

The public sector strike

After almost nine weeks of strike it appears that, with the Baden-Württemberg municipal wage bargaining agreement, the longest post war strike in the public sector is coming to an end. As a result, from the beginning of May on, 220,000 municipal employees in the South West will have to work a 39 instead of 38,5 hours week. But at the moment of writing an agreement at the level of the provinces (the Länder) has still not been reached. While the unions are trying to play down this result, or even present it as a victory for the strikers, it is clear that as far as official working hours are concerned, capital has broken a dam. From now on the exploiters will be busy trying to further lengthen working hours, and to extend those already introduced to the working class as a whole.

Apart from that, the most significant aspect of this strike has been how little the call to strike of the Ver.di trade union has been followed by the workers. In the first weeks of the strike the garbage collectors were the spearhead of the movement. But when, after five weeks on strike, there was still no sign of any success, the workers, who are very experienced in struggle, began to go back to work all along the line. Many of them expressed the feeling that they were being lead straight into a defeat, and that to continue would only lead to a still heavier defeat. Since then, this strike has assumed something of a virtual character. The clearer it has become, that in most of the workplaces allegedly on strike business is going on as usual, the more strike posters the trade unions have been sticking up. It is as if Ver.di is trying to cover up with paper the extent of its incapacity to mobilise the workers.

If the world was not such a complicated place, one would feel entitled to assume that the lack of strike enthusiasm of the proletarians must be an advantage for capital. But that depends very much on the reason why the wage slaves hesitate to enter the struggle. In this case it is clear that it is because Ver.di put the question of the length of the working week at centre stage. But not out of concern to limit the duration of exploitation. No, what it had at heart was the maintenance of the reformist illusion within the class that it is possible within capitalism to reduce mass unemployment through the shortening of the working day. Whereas the trade union bureaucrats are upholding this reformism with something akin to fanaticism, it soon turned out that hardly any worker was prepared to go on strike for such an illusion. No wonder! The last reduction in the working week in the public sector was accompanied by the elimination of over a million jobs!

To make matters worse, one of the main goals of the bourgeoisie with this strike was to increase massively the presence of the trade unions in this sector. Whereas in the engineering industry, it is not uncommon for over 80% of the work force to be union members, the level of union membership in the public sector is, from the point of the bourgeoisie, frighteningly low. It is true that Ver.di has been able to establish itself in individual sectors, such as among the garbage collectors, by presenting itself as an effective protection against privatisation (an illusion which will soon melt). But precisely in those workplaces where the young generation is in a clear majority, such as among the nurses in the hospitals, the trade union agitators are looked at with amazement and also suspicion. Here, we can see a clear parallel with the development in France, where the young generation, because of its lack of experience, does not yet recognise the anti-proletarian character of the unions, but has already begun to sense that they are something outdated, like the dinosaurs.

A worried German bourgeoisie has already begun to draw consequences from this failure of Ver.di. The possibility of separate, purely corporatist unions for each profession, along the lines of the recently established Vereinigung Cockpit of the Pilots or the union of the railway locomotive drivers, is being publicly discussed. The ruling class knows from experience how often in history sectors of the working class who declined to follow a trade union call to struggle, later on has been more than prepared to enter the combat for its own cause.

The doctors’ strike

This strike gives us an example of how a narrowly professional union – in this case the Marburger Bund – can sometimes be very effective, here in controlling the situation in the hospitals. Here, the strike has not only been reduced to the medical world, but is strongly directed towards reformist illusions. It is being claimed, for instance, that this strike is in the best interests of the national capital, being the only way to prevent German doctors from emigrating to countries where they will get better pay.

What’s for sure is that the situation of the doctors disproves the bourgeois propaganda according to which their radical wage demands prove the drifting apart of wage levels and the decline in any solidarity amongst employees. The opposite is the case. The recent attacks against the doctors have been so brutal that not even a 30% wage rise would be able to compensate them. Most of the medical assistants have to do so much unpaid overtime that their wage per hour is often even lower than that of the nurses.

Apart from the fact that, in Germany, this sector has entered the struggle for the first time ever, the significance of this strike lies in the way it has brought up the question of solidarity. Although this strike has caused considerable chaos and increased work loads, neither among the patients nor the rest of the hospital workers has anyone said anything negative about the doctors’ struggle. Some of the nurses have begun to say that they would be prepared to go on strike for the same demands as the doctors – 30% more wages – and to struggle alongside them. In reality, the most pressing problem of the nurses is at present not the length of the working day, but the banning of overtime, as a result of which incomes have fallen by anything up to 25%.

The allegation of Ver.di that the medical profession’s readiness to continue working extremely long hours, fighting instead to have them paid for, is a knife in the back of those hospital workers defending the 38,5 hour week, is a despicable lie. These doctors work longer hours, because they have to take care of their patients and at the same time commit themselves to research and scientific studies. Their demand to have the long hours they work paid for, is a proletarian demand. The sympathy of the general population with this demand is unmistakable. The generous heart of the working class senses that the medical assistants in particular are fighting not only for their own cause, but also for the health of the population at large. Here too, we find the seed of future revolutionary struggles: the realisation that the struggle of the productive class of contemporary society is a struggle for the interests of the whole of humanity.

Against this, the reaction is already  trying to stir up resentment. Thus, we can read in the 25th issue of the strike paper of Ver.di for the employees of the university hospital in Cologne, addressed to the doctors: “We partly support your demands, but you know – as we know – that in the hospitals there is only one cake to share, so that you cannot go and take half of the cake for yourself.”

The engineering workers’ strikes

It is still too early to say whether or not thee will be a major strike in this key concentration of the German and European working class. What is clear is that the engineering workers too have suffered heavy losses of income in recent years, and are not prepared to put up with this much longer. What is above all clear is that the militancy of the engineering workers is already a significant factor in the social situation. In Baden-Württemberg alone, which is both the main centre of the German engineering industry and the vanguard of the struggling German working class in recent years, there are still over a million, for the most part highly qualified engineering workers. Baden-Württemberg borders directly on France, so that there it has been particularly difficult for the bourgeoisie to black out the mass movement on the other side of the Rhine. In view of the gigantic potential of the German proletariat, it comes as no surprise that one of the results of the struggle in France has been that an attack on the employment protection of youth very similar to the French CPE was dropped by the German government even before its French equivalent was withdrawn.

Already in the Kohl era, when the bourgeoisie attacked sick pay, the big plants of the engineering industry, led by the Mercedes workers in Stuttgart, demonstrated their readiness to struggle explicitly in the interests of all workers. This idea reappeared in summer 2004 during the Mercedes strike in Stuttgart and Bremen.

And indeed, while the present strike in the health sector has again shown that it is not possible to completely shut down a hospital without putting in danger the health of the population at large, this need not restrict the capacity of the workers there to defend themselves, as soon as the class struggles as a unity. This idea is also a component of the mass strike.

The elements of the future struggles of the working class as a united body are resent today only in a very embryonic form. It is nevertheless one of the most important tasks of the day to recognise and nurture these precious seeds.

Weltrevolution 2006-04-11.


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