A German-style Strike, Don’t Hold Your Breath ...

The following article is a short opinion piece about how the biggest and longest strike in Germany for a decade is nothing but a turf war or a power struggle between unions. It has little to do with either the economic or political future of workers. It was written in Italian for Battaglia Comunista by our German affiliate the Gruppe Internationaler SozialistInnen (GIS). The title of the original was “Sciopero in stile Germania, non fatevi illusioni...”.[[1]] The CWO has translated it from Italian and added some explanatory footnotes.

The strike of the GDL union (Gewerkschaft der deutschen Lokomotivfuehrer - Union of German Railworkers)[2], headed by Klaus Weselski, is making a lot of headlines across Europe. What is particularly striking[3]is the duration and frequency of this union’s deployment of its membership and its strength over the last six months.

We want to make it clear right away that this article aims to explain to readers and workers outside Germany[4] why there is very little to get excited about in this strike and why it is necessary to go into the merits of this struggle, in order to clarify its contradictions and limits. We will not go into the wage and contractual demands made by the GDL because, apart from the reduction of hours, they only make the banal demand for an indexation of wages to the real cost of living in Germany. The classic stuff of any union dispute anywhere in the world.

It is important to go beyond first impressions which lead to over-enthusiastic responses. First we have to know the union we are talking about, who heads it, how the membership relates to it, and what influence they have on the decisions of such a typical union.

The GDL is one of the two major unions in the railway sector, representing mainly train drivers. The person in charge is Klaus Weselski (see above), a senior trade unionist on the railways in the former German Democratic Republic. He is now a member of the governing Catholic and the conservative centre-right party, CDU, the party led by Angela Merkel.

This strike scenario in Germany opened with the passing of a law which effectively excludes smaller unions from participating at the negotiating table and in decisions companies make at management level. It is a central part of the plan of all the parties, (CDU/CSU/SPD[5]) to impose the bosses’ will on workers and unions without the traditional consultation. In these circumstances the two majority unions, the EVG and GDL, began a fratricidal conflict that, in the last strike but one, escalated to such a point there may yet be more unpleasant surprises for users of the rail service, but more particularly to workers in that industry ... we'll see.

To avoid exclusion from the negotiating table, the GDL, which is smaller than its big sister the EVG[6], decided to launch a massive strike on the pretext of renewal of the contract which has been in limbo for a year now, of its members, thereby attempting to absorb and gain the adhesion of workers in other sectors (coach personnel, cleaners, something they have been trying since 2002, particularly with those in the EVG), which has also been struggling for a year over the renewal of the contract and other conditions of work), allowing its membership to climb above the current 17,000, and challenge the EVG membership. The EVG, meanwhile, with the full support of the government, media and large users (now exhausted and resentful due to sustained lack of basic transportation) accuses the GDL of being unconstitutional and anti-democratic.

Its important to realise that, despite Germany being both economically and technically more advanced and consequently dragged into the crisis before Italy and other countries, with all its consequences, that all this has failed to stir the consciousness of German workers one iota. When the central (union) calls, the members all rush to support their appeal, even dressing up in underpants with gadgets and union badges which the union so generously donates, to make them feel comforted, represented and protected by those who, in truth, are their tormentors and gravediggers at the same time. The level of representation of the workers within these unions is very similar, if not lower, than that of workers who belonged to unions in Italy in the late nineties. It’s "this is what the union thinks" ... then a quick vote and that’s it, without any say when it comes to making decisions. Even in the primaries of the Democratic Party (PD)[7] members show more interest in the "choices" to be made, which shows us why governments all over Europe, starting with Italy, want to imitate the German model so fervently.

In fact, the struggle of the GDL is just part of the power struggle for representation within the largest of the German railways, DB (Deutsche Bahn). There is nothing extraordinary here and nothing fundamentally different from what any union, including the rank and file ones (e.g. the COBAS in Italy) would do in the face of the latest laws on representation in enterprises. However the fact that the legitimacy of workers’ demands just becomes a tool of manipulation in union power games cannot be ignored in any circumstances, and largely reflects the union dynamic over the last few decades. This inbuilt attitude of the trade unions [recently in Italy, USB and Cobas[8] signed the law of representation] only exposes the isolated workers to the anger and hatred of the population, which, in turn, encouraged by the media (in its classic role as the executioner of struggles) makes the strikers a scapegoat for the prevailing frustration that exists in the country. In fact, the railway workers, marginalised by the logic of sectional demands, and by the overall absence of struggle and solidarity from the world of labour, as well as by their own poor or totally absent class consciousness, even at the elementary level, despite its strength (potentially immense within the country), is helpless in the face of the insults and derision of a part of the population, which can’t be sure of getting to work in the normal way on public transport. Despite the fact that the last strike got a little more sympathy than the previous ones, the duration and the constant discomfort produced have scaled back the sympathy for the strike itself even amongst those elements and citizens who were at first more well-disposed towards the workers.

Not that a strike should aim to garner sympathy from society as a whole; a (demand) strike still remains a (demand) strike and, as such, must aim to extort from the owners and their companies all the demands put forward by the workers, but we must remember and fix it on our consciousness, that the strikes should and must go beyond the realm of purely economic demands. Only in this way will they become one of the necessary weapons with which full-time wage workers, along with temporary workers, the unemployed and dispossessed, can attack the economic interests of the owners, with a view to overthrowing their power. We have to make clear what the tools are that defend us against the attacks that employers, banks and governments make on the world of work, in order to prevent a future ruling class from dragging us into fratricidal war amongst the dispossessed, with the high probability, that it could lead to a third world war

While the bourgeoisie will do everything to hold on to power, those who succumb as cannon fodder at no cost in its wars, are ourselves. It is therefore necessary that workers and the exploited in general be compactly organised as a social class, equipping themselves in the economic struggles with executive bodies based on mass meetings (assemblies), created from below, beyond and against the logic of trade unionism. At the same time, the vanguard produced by the struggles must strengthen the political instruments of the class struggle, that is, the revolutionary party must go beyond the artificial boundaries between economic and political demands, to thus make it a social struggle. We can not reduce the battles of workers to mere economic demands in the belief that the wage conflict and the struggle for workers' rights within the profit system are in the long run the solution to understand and overcome the contradictions of capitalism. Without a clear analysis and a strong anti-capitalist programme, that only a revolutionary party can lead, even the most combative union [i.e. economic] and widespread struggle will be reabsorbed and stifled by the ruling class. With this, as the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT) we want to warn the various groups of comrades active in the union struggles in Italy, especially the rank and file ones who operate in their sphere of political influence, not to get caught up in over-enthusiasm. What Battaglia Comunista thinks of the union struggle for its own sake, even with radical connotations, is already in the public domain. The message, therefore, as the GIS (Gruppe Internationaler SozialistInnen), we send from Germany, especially from Berlin, is not to be captivated by the sight of big union strikes, which, even if theatrically well organised, mask the most rotten and opportunist trade union logic.

Otherwise it constantly risks opening the door to trade unionism and economism, in the romantic illusion that a different class-based union can still be a viable alternative to the real class struggle, that definitely has and will have very different connotations.

A.D. Gis / ICT from Berlin

Friday, June 19, 2015

Translator’s footnotes

[1] Literally “A German-style strike: Have no illusions…” .

[2] The train drivers’ union.

[3] No pun intended (it’s a translation!).

[4] The original was written for Italian comrades so said “in Italy”.

[5] Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union and Social Democratic Party – all parties in the grand coalition which rules Germany today, that are still following the Schroeder agenda of 2010.

[6] Which has 200,000 members so is the main negotiator with management.

[7] This another reference to the situation in Italy. PD is the “centre-left” party of current Prime Minister Renzi, an admirer of Tony Blair, who would like to bring in similar labour “reforms” to “make Italy more competitive”.

[8] COBAS stands for “comitati di base”. Sometimes translated as “base unions” the nearest English equivalent is rank and file trade unions (of which there are few in the English-speaking world). Over the last 3 or 4 decades there have been even more new rank and file unions formed in Italy with one splitting off from another (So COBAS became SiCOBAS or SlaiCOBAS etc) as each one in turn started to take on the character of the original unions and seeking a place at the state’s table. The problem here is not of bad, weak or corrupt individuals but is just what happens to any permanent body which tries to represent workers at the economic level. It inevitably gets sucked into the negotiating mechanisms of the capitalist system to the point in some cases that they cannot even function well as defenders of the day to day interests of the class let alone as rallying points against the system.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015