SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 117 - April 2008

Germany: strikes, strikes and more strikes

Industrial militancy is on the rise in Germany. Following the successful train drivers’ strikes at the end of last year, in February and March public-sector warning strikes demanded a minimum wage increase of €200 or 8%. Berlin transport workers went on the longest all-out strike in their history (twelve days) for wage increases. Shop workers are organising rolling strike action, and postal workers could soon join in. At the same time, three federal state elections in the West have seen the Left Party enter parliament for the first time. SASCHA STANICIC, from Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI Germany), reports on this marked shift to the left.

NO ONE CAN deny that Germany has become a five-party society as the Left Party has developed a relatively strong electoral base in West Germany. For the other parties – the Social Democrats, the conservative Christian Democrats (Christian Social Union in Bavaria), the Greens and the Liberals – this means that, in many cases, the usual coalition options, Conservatives/Liberals or Social Democrats/Greens, will not work any more. This was the case after the last general election in 2005, which led to the first grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and the SPD since the late 1960s.

This has led to a sharp crisis inside the SPD around the question of cooperation with the Left Party. The SPD now stands in opinion polls at its lowest figures for decades at 22%. But the present SPD crisis is just a further worsening of a long process which has its roots in the complete transformation of this former bourgeois workers’ party (pro-capitalist at the top but with an active mass base among the working class) into a completely pro-capitalist formation. This can be seen in the sharp decline in membership, which stood at 943,402 in 1990 and today stands at 536,655.

At the same time, the federal state of Hamburg will probably see the first CDU/Green coalition at a state level, reflecting the need for the established capitalist parties to develop new coalition policies (and also showing how far to the right the Green Party has gone). All this underlines the enormous political instability, the crisis of legitimacy of the bourgeois political parties and institutions, and the fact that the ruling class is incapable at the moment of finding a unified policy against the working class. Some sections of the capitalists prefer certain concessions, while others are trying to whip up anti-immigrant prejudice through racist campaigns.

But Germany is not only going through exciting times on the electoral level. Despite the fact that there still is economic growth, albeit smaller than last year, one company after another has announced redundancies or factory closures in recent weeks. These include Nokia (2,300 jobs), BMW (7,500), Siemens/SEN (3,200). All these companies make profits. This increases the anger against greedy corporations and capitalists. Then there is the huge tax scandal which erupted when the German Intelligence Service bought data files from a Liechtenstein bank worker that revealed that 1,000 German capitalists, managers and other fat cats have conducted massive tax fraud amounting to many billions of euros.

All of this is happening before the developing world economic crisis has hit Germany. Despite the fact that some German banks were affected by the subprime crisis and the state had to bail them out, there still is an estimated GDP growth of 1.7% for 2008 (a sharp reduction from previous forecasts). However, the government’s propaganda that Germany can avoid crisis will soon be seen as ‘whistling in the forest’. Because of Germany’s strong dependence on exports – which in recent years has gone up to 44% of GDP – there is no way that the country’s economy could avoid recession once the US economy takes the rest of the world with it into crisis. A recession will hit a working class which has suffered under massive neo-liberal programmes in the last five years and which has had enough of sacrifice. This is a recipe for bitter defensive battles against factory closures and job losses in the near future.

Train drivers’ victory

IN A RECENT opinion poll – conducted before the tax fraud became publicly known – two-thirds said that German society is ‘rather unjust’. After years of social cuts, falling real wages and increasing working hours this is no surprise. Even during this boom, average real monthly wages have fallen from €1,112 in 2003 to €1,079 last year. But now the tide in society is turning because of the existence of the Left Party, which can articulate – often in a distorted form – the aspirations of the working class for a bigger share of the wealth in society.

These aspirations can clearly be seen in the present wage negotiations between trade unions and employers in several industries. In the steel industry, workers achieved a 5.2% pay rise – the biggest for many years, though still far too little. Here the high demand for steel on the world markets helped the workers and only the threat of strikes was enough to get concessions. On the other hand, this means that by taking strike action a much better deal would have been possible.

The successful train drivers’ strikes in 2007 had a big impact on workers and trade unionists. The train drivers’ union (GDL) did not agree to the bad wage deal the other, bigger, rail unions had accepted, and started an independent campaign for a better deal. For the first time, it took all-out strike action for 72 hours and brought much of the country to a standstill. GDL was denounced by other unions and also some on the left as splitters, as it does not belong to the DGB, the German TUC. Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI Germany) supported the train drivers actively from the beginning. While arguing for workers’ unity in struggle and demanding that the GDL leadership should link up with workers from the other railway unions and offer joint struggle, we pointed out that, in order to lead a fight, it is sometimes necessary to break an organisational unity which only helps a right-wing trade union put a brake on struggles.

The outcome of the train drivers’ strike certainly is seen as a success by the mass of workers. The GDL gained because of a higher wage increase (11%) than other sectors and a one-hour reduction in the working week, but also because the GDL protected its autonomy in negotiating for train drivers. However, the GDL leadership did not use the full potential of its membership. A layer of the most political and active members are critical of aspects of the deal, especially because the union leadership made concessions regarding the representation of other rail workers.

Action in the public sector

IN THE PUBLIC sector especially, the current wage round is very polarised, with great potential for a strike movement. In a number of warning strikes, workers have shown their determination to fight for the main demand of a €200 wage increase. Hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers have taken action in three waves of warning strikes in the last few weeks in hospitals, local councils, airports, childcare facilities, public transport and other parts of the public sector.

Instead of preparing all-out strike action to win the full demands, the bureaucracy of the main public-sector trade union, ver.di, has agreed to a mediation process during which the union has no right to take industrial action. This mediation continues at the time of writing, but the pressure on ver.di is high not to agree to a compromise. This is because the union had agreed to a new general agreement concerning conditions of employment that means heavy wage losses for many public-sector workers. Many workers are angry because they only realised the full effects after it was agreed to. This led to a situation where wage increases have become a necessity for workers to be able to survive on a decent level.

The employers will try to offer a bigger wage increase than in recent years on condition that the union agrees to lengthening working hours. Socialist activists in ver.di demand that all-out strike action is organised to win the full demands without any concessions. The ver.di leaders are in a dilemma – on the one side they fear strikes as this always means a dynamic in which the rank and file can get out of control (at a time when the grip of the trade union bureaucracy over the workers has already loosened); on the other side, they fear that with a bad deal a big layer of workers could leave the union and some may even join competing union organisations. This has already happened with hundreds (maybe thousands) of bus and underground workers in Berlin and Munich joining the GDL, which did not previously organise such professions.

A national public-sector strike could coincide with the Berlin transport workers possibly restarting their strike. After twelve days the union leadership interrupted the strike and scandalously watered down its demands to get the employers to agree to a compromise. But the employers seem to be taking a hard position – and behind the management of the transport company, BVG, stands the Berlin regional government made up of SPD and the regional Left Party! The strike was called, with 96.9% voting in favour, to partly reverse some of the vicious 12% wage cuts this so-called ‘red/red’ coalition imposed in 2005 on existing workers, forcing new workers to work for 30% less than existing workers doing the same job.

The fact that twelve days of strikes did not make the employers give in shows that the economic pressure of bus and underground workers can be limited, as every strike day actually means less costs for the regional government. Therefore, it would have been necessary to lead a much more political strike campaign than the ver.di leadership in Berlin did – building on the majority public support the strike has and linking up to other workers to organise solidarity action.

Whatever happens in April, Germany is experiencing heightened class polarisation. Even if the right-wing trade union leadership avoids big strikes this time new opportunities can develop soon.

This is not yet a French-style mass strike movement, but certainly a new situation for Germany in which the organised working class has begun to put its stamp on society. Given the general left shift in consciousness and the growing support for the Left Party, the strike movements show a way forward. They demonstrate how demands such as a minimum wage, a lower age of retirement, an end to privatisation – which have majority support in every opinion poll – can be achieved: through the collective action of the workers!

A parliamentary road

THE STRIKES COINCIDE with growing political instability. The electoral successes of the Left Party led to a completely new arithmetic on the parliamentary level. In the federal state of Hessen this compelled the SPD to break its ‘election promise’ not to cooperate with the Left Party. Only with the votes of the Left Party could the SPD candidate, Andrea Ypsilanti, be elected as minister-president of that state and the hated right-wing Christian Democrat, Roland Koch, be kicked out of office. Nationally, this has helped fuel the growing crisis within the SPD leadership, with a bitter debate on what should be done about its falling support.

This situation has intensified the debate within the left on the question of coalition policy. The leader of the Left Party parliamentary group in Hessen, Willi van Ooyen, correctly argued in favour of only voting for Ypsilanti in the direct elections to the position of minister-president to get rid of Koch but against making any political agreements of general cooperation with the SPD. Others, on the right wing of the Left Party, see the situation in Hessen as a chance to tolerate an SPD-led government as a step towards their direct government participation in the future (as is already the case in the federal state of Berlin where a SPD/Left Party coalition implements anti-working-class-politics).

SAV would support a vote for Ypsilanti as a parliamentary tactic to express the mass desire to kick out Koch, but is opposed on principle to any toleration of or coalition with the neo-liberal and pro-capitalist SPD. Socialists can only join a government which is based on the struggles of the workers and which sets itself the goal of bringing down capitalism and opening the doors for a socialist society.

Unfortunately, the more left-wing activists in the Hessen Left Party also have an exclusively parliamentarian orientation. In an interview, a member of the regional parliament (supporter of the Marx21-network, the sister group of the British SWP), Janine Wissler, said that the Left Party in the Hessen parliament has the same course as the SPD and only spoke of parliamentary motions rather than the necessity for the party to concentrate on organising the extra-parliamentary struggles and mobilisations. SAV supporters put forward a motion at a Hessen Left Party conference demanding that the party should mobilise for a mass protest demo on the first day of the newly elected parliament meeting to show that only mass action by workers and youth can lead to improvements for the masses. This was agreed by the conference but so far the Hessen leadership has done nothing to implement the decision.

One right-wing SPD MP in the Hessen parliament said she would not vote for Ypsilanti if she used the Left Party votes to become minister-president. As this move put her majority into danger, Ypsilanti’s position is uncertain. This again intensified the crisis in the SPD nationally, with the party going down in opinion polls, and has opened up debate about a change in the position of party chair.

A new mass party

THE LEFT PARTY remains a contradictory phenomenon. Through its oppositionist role in the national parliament, the Bundestag, and the profile of its main leader, Oskar Lafontaine, it has the image of an anti-neoliberal and left-wing opposition party. This attracts the more advanced layers of the working class looking towards the party as a lever for political change. Five thousand new members have joined since it was founded almost a year ago. This is not a mass influx but more than any other party. Currently, it is getting up to 14% in national opinion polls, making it the third-largest party. Given that it will maintain this role and image, the Left Party will remain as the political reference point for workers and young people for the next period, at least until the next general elections in September 2009.

At the same time, it can be said that the Left Party is very different in the East and West. In the West it has a certain inner-party life and the leadership does not have complete control. The party structures in the East are extremely bureaucratic and the party often is part of local administrations. In the East, too, the national oppositionist profile of Lafontaine and the parliamentary group in the Bundestag has an effect and the Left Party is now the strongest force in opinion polls. While SAV members in West Germany are actively involved in the party trying to build it on the basis of socialist policies, in the East they have not joined it because it is not seen as a means for resistance. Despite this, where possible, SAV branches in the East approach the Left Party locally to propose joint struggles on concrete issues. This was the case when the SAV councillor in Rostock, Christine Lehnert, approached the Left Party’s group on the council to put forward a common motion in support of the striking public-sector workers – demanding that the council should grant ver.di’s wage demands and not wait for the employers nationally to agree to a deal. This was rejected by the Left Party in Rostock.

Germany has entered a new stage of class struggle and class polarisation – before the looming economic crisis has even hit the country. Once this happens, it will mean that bitter battles on a mass scale will develop, as well as leaps in consciousness, with more and more workers drawing anti-capitalist conclusions. If the Left Party adopted a class-struggle based, socialist programme and energetically intervened in struggles and movements, a new mass party of the working class could arise from it. Unfortunately, the politics of the leadership make this unlikely. Therefore it is necessary to build a Marxist opposition inside and outside of the party. The prospects for such a Marxist force to grow are getting better every day.


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