In 2007, Germany saw the highest number of strike days since 1993 (just after reunification). 70% of them came in the strike last spring against ‘externalisation', ie the relocation of 50,000 telecom jobs. This in a country which has for so long been presented as a dynamic economy and a model of social harmony.
The railway strike
All that is a thing of the past. The railway workers' strike which ended in January after ten months shows that clearly enough. The number of railway workers has been reduced by half over the last 20 years, and working conditions have deteriorated as never before, wages have been more and more falling behind over the last 15 years, so that working on the railways is now one of the worst paid jobs in the country (around 1500 euros a month on average). During these ten months, the German railway workers were the target of all sorts of manoeuvres, threats and pressures.
- Last August the German courts declared that the railway strike was illegal. In fact the three day strike launched by the train drivers in November and clearly announced as an ‘indefinite' strike, was immediately, and as if by a miracle, legalised by the courts the moment the French railway workers also went on strike.
- The trade unions played a major role in carving up the workers' response, through a division of labour between those unions that advocated legal methods and the more radical ones that were ready to break the law, like the corporatist train drivers' union, the GDL, which was presented as the animating force behind the strike.
- The media launched a whole campaign about the ‘selfish' nature of the strike, although in reality it won a lot of sympathy among the majority of working class passengers, who saw the railway workers as common victims of ‘social injustice.'
- The German state tried to intimidate the train drivers by threatening to make them pay the millions of euros lost through the strike.
Despite all this, the railway workers did not back down and the German bourgeoisie had to make some concessions.
The strike ended with an 11% increase in wages, but not for all categories of Deutsche Bahn employees. This result was far short of the 31% demanded by the workers ten months ago and has already been eaten away by all the wage agreements of the last 19 months, including a reduction in hours from a 41 to a 40 hour week for the 20,000 train drivers, which will begin in ...February 2009. But it is still significant that the state made some concessions to the workers' demands in order to release a certain amount of social steam.
The struggle around Nokia in Bochum
The rising militancy of workers in Germany was illustrated in a more striking manner when the Finnish mobile company Nokia announced for the end of 2008 the closure of its site at Bochum which employs 2300 workers. When you take in the dependent jobs, this would mean a loss of 4000 jobs for the town. On 16 January, the day after the announcement, the workers refused to go to work and the workers of the nearby Opel factory, with others from Mercedes, steelworkers from the Hoechst plant in Dortmund, metal workers from Herne and miners from the region flocked to the gates of the Nokia factory to give their support and solidarity. On 22 January, a 15,000 strong demonstration marched through Bochum to show solidarity with the Nokia workers.
The workers were thus forging links with past struggles. In 2004, the workers of the Daimler-Benz factory in Bremen struck spontaneously, defying the blackmailing attempts of the management which tried to play the card of competition with the Daimler plant in Stuttgart, which was threatened with redundancies. A few months later, other car workers, those from Opel in Bochum, also launched a spontaneous strike against the same kinds of threats. It was precisely to prevent this kind of solidarity towards the Nokia workers that the government, regional and local politicians, the church, the unions and the German bosses' organisations orchestrated a major national campaign, denouncing Nokia's lack of scruples and accusing them of having "scandalously abused" the German state and of having taken advantage of its subsidies. All swore, hand on heart, that they had offered these funds to safeguard jobs and that today they are ready to fight tooth and nail to defend ‘their' workers against disloyal bosses The hypocrisy of this argument is all the greater given that the working class in Germany is being particularly exposed to the attacks of the bourgeoisie (retirement age raised to 67, redundancy plans, cuts in all social benefits in the ‘Agenda 2010' plan ...).
The perspective is for the development of the class struggle. Such a development, in a country as central as Germany, with all the weighty historical experience of its proletariat, can only be a catalyst for workers' struggles across the continent. And it is for this reason that the bourgeoisie is posing in Bochum as the defender and protector of ‘its' workers. Its aim is to smother the real expressions of workers' solidarity we have seen there and to prevent them from spreading. WA (27.1.08)