Strikes in Germany, September 1969: Here too, the class struggle returned to the stage

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In the summer of 2008 we published two articles on 1968 in Germany, which took up the international and historical framework of the events[1]. In these articles we emphasised that the protests of 1968 which drew so much attention expressed an accumulation of anger which was not just a temporary phenomenon but brought a more profound subterranean movement to the surface.

Although these protests were marked by the reappearance of the economic crisis this aspect was not yet dominant. The big economic demands still remained in the background in Germany until 1969. However, the resistance against inhumane working conditions gained more force: be it the incredibly undignified treatment of the "guest" workers (the migrant work force was called "guest" workers); the situation of the mass workers; cultural misery - all these factors played a role in the rejection of the "society of abundance". The idea was gaining momentum amongst the younger generation that "we do not want the western system, but we do not want the eastern system either; instead we need a ‘democratic socialism', we want the rule of workers' councils". Moreover the feeling was widespread that the existing institutions are not ours. All these movements could not just be reduced to economic aspects but they threw up many social-political questions.

The reappearance of the social question which had been proclaimed dead

Behind this accumulation of anger a fissure in the relationship between the social classes was opening. A whole epoch drew to a close. Slowly, a new, but undefeated generation emerged which had not participated in the war and which was not ready to accept slogging in the capitalist treadmill without any resistance. The search for something different, as yet undefined, had begun. This new generation of students and young workers was not chained by the counter-revolution which had raged against the working class since the 1920s, and it wanted to develop a new perspective.

While in France the mass strikes of the workers gave birth to a feeling of solidarity and cohesion between workers and students in their struggle against the government, the workers in Germany had not yet appeared massively on the scene in spring 1968. Following the wave of protests after the assassination attempt against Rudi Dutschke in April 1968 and the demonstrations against the emergency laws in summer 1968, the student-dominated movement ebbed away. Hundreds of thousands of youth looked for a force which could act as a pole of reference, give them an orientation and act as a lever for overcoming this society. While some of the youth turned towards violent actions and while many others, especially students, became mobilised in the formation of leftist organisations, to have a better "impact on the workers in the factories", many elements of proletarian origin turned away from the protests altogether and withdrew in a certain sense. One of the characteristics of the development after 1968 was that the student youth either withdrew or large parts were sucked up by leftists, while proletarian resistance started to get stronger at the work place[2]. Within this movement young workers and above all apprentices took the lead.

Proletarian youth at the spearhead of the resistance

In spring 1969 protests of apprentices moved more into the foreground. On May 1 1969 apprentices formed their own "blocs" at trade union demonstrations. On June 7 1969 at a big demo in Köln some 10,000 mainly young workers gathered under the banner "Self-determination and class struggle - instead of ‘co-determination' and fake trade union struggles" (‘co-determination' was a long-practised method of institutionalising cooperation between shop stewards and bosses for the daily running of the companies). It was possible to hold meetings with a majority participation of apprentices in different cities, where they did not only talk about the immediate situation and immediate demands, but the general historical situation[3]. The protests of the young workers played a dynamic role in unleashing of the September 1969 strikes. Precisely because younger workers often showed a greater combativity and were more fearless than their elder co-workers, it became possible to establish a bridge towards the older generation through the means of class struggle because, as described in earlier articles, there was a particularly deep division between the generations in Germany.

The wave of strikes in September 69

Already in spring 1969 a wave of small and limited but spontaneous strikes, which all turned around demands for wage increases, had broken out. In the beginning of September there was a small but real wave, which hit the main industrial centres in West Germany. The steel and metal industries were at the centre of the movement.

27,000 steel workers downed tools on September 2 at Hoesch-Dortmund for two days. Following this, workers in one factory after another downed tools.

Here are some centres of the movement:

  • September 4-5th: Rheinstahl-Mülhlheim-Ruhr with 2,900 strikers;
  • September 5-6th: 12,000 striking workers at Mannesmann-Duisburg, 1,000 striking workers at AEG Mülheim;
  • September 5-9th: 3,300 striking workers at Rheinstahl Gelsenkirchen
  • September 9-11th: 10,000 striking miners at Ruhrkohle AG

Although the centre of the movement was in the Ruhr area, workers in other towns joined the movement. On September 8-9th 1,800 workers at Rheinstahl Brackwede (near Bielefeld) went on strike, in Sulzbach-Rosenberg at Maximiliams steel works on September 8th 3,000 workers, at Klöckner stopped work between September 5-13th, while in Bremen and in Georgsmarien steelworks in Osnabruck 3,000-6,000 workers were on strike.

Another centre of the movement was the Saarland - at Neunkircher steel mills 6,000 steelworkers went on strike from September 4-8th; and 20,000 miners stopped working from September 6-11th. Between September 9-19th Howald docks at Kiel with 7,000 workers followed suit.

Although the situation in southern Germany was calmer than elsewhere, there were strikes at Heidelberg printing machines in Geisslingen, where on September 5th more than 1,000 workers went on strike, and at Daimler Benz Sindelfingen (near Stuttgart) several short work stoppages occurred.

Whether in the Ruhr area, where the spark also ignited movements in smaller companies with just a few hundred employees or outside of the big cities (as at Hueck-Lippstadt or in the textile industry in the area around Munster), or in the public service sector, where several hundred employees in public transport and city cleaning went on strike in several cities, this wave of strikes showed that the working class in Germany was once again raising its head. However, in comparison to France, it becomes clear that while the movement in Germany on a political level moved in the same direction as the workers in France, the struggles in Germany never reached the same massive scale as in France. An illustration: in May/June 1968 in France some 10 million workers went on strike; in Germany the movement involved only some 140,000 workers.

Spontaneous reappearance of the classic tools of struggle of the 20th century

Nevertheless, more than 140,000 striking workers in more than 70 companies showed that the working class in Germany had embarked upon the same road as their class brothers and sisters elsewhere.

Everywhere the workers raised similar demands: wage increases, payment for strike days, no repressive measures against striking workers. Everywhere a similar course of events: workers downed tools spontaneously - against the decisions of the shop stewards and the trade unions. At Hoesch Dortmund the workers spontaneously gathered around a fire engine of the plant and took decisions collectively in a general assembly which gathered almost permanently. At Rheinstahl in Gelsenkirchen but also in the Saarland workers staged marches on company premises and called upon other workers to join their movement; often they marched into town. At Ruhrkohle AG a protest march ended in front of the administrative building. The workers always took the initiative; they organised the strikes themselves and avoided getting locked up behind factory gates.

Taking up the tradition which had been buried for decades by the counterrevolution, the questions of extension and self-organisation of the strikes, coming together in demonstrations, collective decision-making in general assemblies, the election of strike committees with revocable delegates - all this came into the foreground.

Everywhere the same opponents clashed. In several cities (Saarbrucken, Osnabruck, Dortmund) workers marched to the union headquarters and protested against their policy. In Dortmund hundreds of angry steel workers wanted to storm the union building and expose how the unions were working for the benefit of the capitalists. When, at general assemblies such as at Hoesch-Dortmund, workers exposed the sabotage by the unions, the shop stewards tried to switch off the microphone. "A DKP member [German Communist Party, Stalinist] spoke. Everyone should be allowed to voice his concerns and opinions through the microphone, but we will no longer tolerate anybody who wants to speak against the shop stewards and the trade unions" (quoted in September Strikes 1969, of the Pahl-Rugenstein publishing house, close to the DKP, p. 61).

In several plants the strike committee negotiated alongside the shop stewards and the trade unions with the bosses, with the shop stewards and the trade unions often stabbing them in the back.

This wave of struggles, which weakened after September 1969, was also contained by the formation of the social-liberal coalition on October 21 1969 under Willy Brandt. Initially the ruling class in Germany had faced up to the rising tide of struggles in a clumsy way and with little tactical skill. They poured a lot of oil on the fire because of their very provocative attitude and by resorting quickly to repression. The election campaign which unfolded in autumn 1969 put a brake on the class struggle.

The class struggle does not unfold in a linear manner

After 1969 the struggles ebbed, until in autumn 1973 a new wave of struggles hit several sectors. Between 1969 and 1973 a series of small wildcat strikes occurred. Some examples: At Enka-Wuppertal at the end of April 1972 the workers went on strike against job cuts, and they took up direct contact with the employees of the same company in the Dutch city of Breda, who were also facing lay-offs. In protests against cuts of their Christmas bonuses and the cuts of other added payments at KHD_Deutz some 5,000 workers downed tools.

Early February (30 January-13 February 1973) workers at the car supplier Hülsbeck and Führt in Velbert (southern Ruhr area) went on strike. The strikers tried to make their struggle public - delegations of workers went to Bochum university in order to call for active solidarity from the students. They wrote leaflets together with students and pupils. Early February (8.2.-10.2.1973) the steel workers of Hoesch-Dortmund demanded a wage increase for all workers and rejected the deal which the trade unions had agreed upon. A permanent strike assembly, where some 500-1.000 workers were present all the time, met in the canteen. The shop stewards strangled the strike against resistance from the shop floor.

Whether in Duisburg-Huckingen in the steel-industry, at Karmann in Osnabruck, at Klöckner in Bremen, Pierburg in Neuss, the list of wildcat strikes in 1973 is very long. Between January 1972 and mid-June 1973, some 200,000 were involved in wildcat strikes. Many of these strikes were in protest against wage cuts accepted by the trade unions. During late summer 1973 the movement, which involved some 80,000 workers in around 100 companies, came to a peak in the strike at the Cologne Ford motor company in August 1973. 300 Turkish workers had been sacked because they returned late from holidays. In addition the company wanted to impose an increase of working speeds at the assembly line. Spontaneously several thousand workers, mainly Turks,  downed tools. They demanded 1 DeutschMark (today 0.50 Euro) for every worker, withdrawal of the redundancies, six weeks of paid holidays, reduction of work speed. The negotiations took place between the shop stewards (who acted in defence of the interests of the company) and the strike committee. But the striking workers did not manage to overcome the separation between the Turkish and German workers.

The wave of strikes of 1972-73 in the same way as those of 1969 had the following characteristics:

  • general assemblies were formed which were in permanent session;
  • these developed thanks to the initiative of the striking workers and against the resistance of the shop stewards;
  • there were confrontations between striking workers and the official works councils and shop stewards;
  • workers took the initiative to take up contact with workers of other companies;
  • there were strong divisions amongst German and foreign workers;

Workers were quickly faced with repressive measures by bosses and police.

We have to keep the international context in mind because in Italy at the same time there were struggles by millions of workers in the "hot autumn of 1969", and this certainly stimulated the combativity of the working class in Germany.

Some conclusions

Even though the workers in Germany appeared on stage later than the workers in France and in a certain sense remained in second line, the reappearance of the working class in the cold war front line state of those days, where the working class together with the workers in Russia had suffered the severest defeat in the 1920s, contributed significantly to the change in the international balance of forces between capital and labour. The strikes of September 1969 played an important role in ending the counterrevolution.

Although the different components of the protest movement (protest against war and armaments, students protests, workers' strikes) did not seem to be linked to each other, there was a common denominator amongst them: the rejection of the logic of the system. The young generation which had appeared on stage was not ready to submit to the ideology and the expectations of the ruling class. While bourgeois propaganda tries to reduce the movement to only a few aspects and these aspects have been turned against the movement, we should not forget that at the start the movement was directed against the system.

The movement suffered from the strong burden of the "generation gap". The young rebellious generation looked at the older generation with suspicion and contempt. Today there are much better conditions for a unification of the different generations.

At the time many young people quickly lost hope for the establishment of a new society, since the working class at that time could not yet act as a point of reference. Many young people were absorbed mainly by leftist groups and led astray. But today there is the danger of a lack of perspectives. While many recognise the need for another society than capitalism, only very few are convinced that such a society is possible. But the destiny of the struggles, the perspectives of the struggles will depend on the conviction that a society without exploitation is not only necessary but also possible.

Weltrevolution, 15/7/09.


[2] Mostly these meetings were disturbed by the activities of the leftist groups which emerged at the time. They strangled the rising willingness to debate. In the end the leftist groups contributed to the collapse of the movement of the apprentices, by snatching the initiative away from them and by wanting to recruit them for their activities (see Weltrevolution no 149).


[3] Between 1945-1969 most strikes in West Germany were small wildcat strikes:  

1965: 14 spontaneous strikes,

1966: 21 spontaneous strikes,

1967: 62 spontaneous strikes,

1968: 52 spontaneous strikes with some 50,000 employees,

1969: wave of strikes with more than 150,000 strikers.