Where Is the German Trade Union Movement and Where Is It Going?


Germany is the world’s leading exporter and the third largest industrial economy, following Japan and the United States.  German multi-nationals are drowning in supreme opulence, yet the wages of German workers remain severely depressed.  The Wall Street Journal, engaging in low-intensity class struggle labor journalism, confirmed in its January article “German Unions See Leverage in Pay Fight”: “there is little question that German workers have lost ground.  Labor costs rose 10% from 2000 to 2006, the smallest increase of any country in the European Union and far below the bloc’s 22% jump during that period.”  There is, moreover, less strike activity in this highly unionized country than in France and the United States, both of whose union density rates remain significantly lower than that of Germany.  The pressing question is, why is militant union consciousness, especially in light of a booming German economy, not on the radar screen?  A cynical commentator might flirt with what might be interpreted as socially and politically incorrect jokes about the so-called “national character” of Germany.  For example, why did a social revolution not occur in Germany?  The word revolution is verboten (prohibited).  Or what did German workers do before attempting to occupy a train station?  They purchased their entry tickets before seizing the station.  However, as the British historian Ian Kershaw has shown, the German working class was, before Hitler leveraged himself into power in 1933, the most class- and union-conscious group of workers in the industrialized world.  Thus a kind of Pavlovian, docile reaction to the employer’s demand is not a product of a nebulous national character, rather an impediment resulting from the failure to grasp the still relevant concept of class struggle and competing class interests.

The German leftist journalist Jürgen Elsässer is pleading for a renaissance of the theory and practice of class struggle in Germany.  Elsässer’s Marxism is a classical Marxism, and yet he posits the former Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician Oskar Lafontaine as a catalyst for class struggle.  But Lafontaine, who has now embraced the Left Party-Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), stoked a deadly German worker nationalism during the 2005 election.  He warned that “Fremdarbeiter” (foreign workers) are undercutting employment security for German workers.  That helps to explain why Andrei S. Markovits issued an early alarm signal in his article “National vs. Global Players,” published in the independent left weekly German newspaper Jungle World, that “the German unions have the responsibility to not run the risk, at any price, of igniting the nationalistic powder keg.  The disadvantages of globalization must be energetically fought, but never with the nationalistic club.”  German unions, like their American counterparts, are, as Fernando E. Gapasin and Michael D. Yates highlighted in their June 2005 Monthly Review article, “under the neoliberal gun.”  The pressing and serious challenge for the German trade union movement is to avoid turning inward and to supercede the identification of neoliberalism, or globalization, with Anglo-American-style capitalism.  (The German word “Heuschrecke,” or locust, is frequently used as synonym for the Anglo-American capitalistic invasion.)  Internationalism, both in terms of class identity and struggle, is the only true escape hatch for organized, and unorganized, labor in Germany.

Aside from nationalism, what is blocking the formation of a confrontational union consciousness among German workers?  A likely reason is the compromise model of industrial labor relations.  Germany is a compromise-driven nation where middle ground solutions tend to prevail.  The current coalition government among the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the SPD is a telling example of the cooperation model of German power politics.  The highly complex and elaborate system of worker councils in Germany is the economic equivalent of its political coalition model.  The German parliament enacted the co-determination law in 1976, a form of employee participation that allows union representatives to serve on the Board of Directors of corporations and vote on firm-related business decisions.  The co-determination law covers enterprises with a workforce of over 2,000 employees.  A series of recent labor-management bribery scandals could, however, contribute to destabilizing this model, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2006.  The former president and founder of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Unabhängiger Betriebsangehöriger,”1 an independent union representing 30,000 employees at the multi-national corporation Siemens, was charged in mid-February with illegally receiving 14 million Euros from Siemens.

The second unfolding union-bribery corruption scandal involves the former head of Volkswagen’s (VW) works council Klaus Volkert, a member of the IG Metall.  (VW is Europe’s largest automobile manufacturer.)  The former director of the VW labor relations department, Peter Hartz, admitted this past January to employing illegal spending accounts for prostitution and luxury trips to Brazil in which Volkert was a principal recipient of the payments.  Documents show that Albert Schunk, an IG Metall member of the joint VW-IG Metall labor-management committee and responsible for international relationships for the union, also benefited from the illegal spending account for his trip to Brazil, including monies used for prostitutes.  Keep in mind that Hartz was the architect of a set of neo-liberal reforms in Germany which reduced unemployment insurance for German workers.  The reform is called Hartz IV and was enacted last year by the SPD-Green government.

Robert Fitch, who was interviewed by Michael Yates in Monthly Review, minimized the first VW corruption scandal as a kind of anomaly within the European labor movement.  But such scandals are hardly new: former head of the IG Metall Klaus Zwickel resigned his post in 2003 in the midst of a criminal proceeding lodged against him.  His unsavory role on the Board of Directors of the Mannesmann corporation in which departing executives were paid severance payments totaling 57 Million Euros was the source of great media attention, largely  because the case involved the most devastating white-collar economic criminal case in the history of Germany.  Zwickel agreed to pay a 60,000 Euro settlement and is, according to German law, free of criminal guilt.  The timing of Zwickel’s resignation in 2003 coincided with the IG Metall’s first strike defeat in over 50 years.

Fitch moreover maintained that there is “no comparison between European and American corruption.  No one has ever charged a European union with being a criminal enterprise.”  The recent collapse of the union-controlled bank BAWAG (Bank für Arbeit und Wirtschaft) in Austria, however, would certainly qualify as an example of fundamental union corruption comparable to or surpassing American labor corruption.  One German commentator described the scandal as “the downfall of the Austrian worker’s movement.”  The BAWAG, the fourth largest bank in Austria, engaged in speculative business dealings in the Caribbean, which resulted in the loss of approximately 1 billion Euros.  The Austrian Labor Federation (ÖGB) oversaw the bank, and the running shopping list of inept and criminal activities of the ÖGB could be attributed to a union leadership who were more interested in a wannabe-capitalist banker lifestyle rather than protecting the assets of ordinary rank-and-file members.  The ÖGB turned the BAWAG into a criminal enterprise.  The illegal practices of the BAWAG have resulted in the loss of the strike fund, an education fund for the children of union members, and an emergency assistance program for members who are experiencing a financial crisis.  Union expenditures in Europe are not as transparent as in the United States.  Consequently, union corruption in Germany is simply better disguised and therefore unregistered by many American labor journalists and commentators.  As the American Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman once remarked, “everything is a little corrupt in a very corrupt capitalist society.”

Where Is the Rank and File?  And How Can German Unions Embrace an Offensive Strategy against the Business Class?


“Reform is a swearword in Germany.  In the Scandinavian countries reform means progress,” said Joachim Fährmann, a shop steward in the Volkswagen auto plant in Wolfsburg, Germany.  Fährmann, a member of the IG-Metall union, spoke to Monthly Review in the heart of Berlin’s government district during the largest of five demonstrations in late October 2006 organized by the German labor federation (DGB) against the so-called “reform” politics of the governing coalition between the SPD and the CDU/CSU.  Fährmann’s comment alludes to a series of governmental measures which “reform” the health care system in Germany at the expense of ordinary workers and increases the retirement age from 65 to 67.  A pension plan beginning at the age of 67 “is nothing other than an extended reduction of the retirement plan,” blasted Jürgen Peters, the IG Metall union leader, during the protest in the city of Dortmund.  220,000 demonstrators participated in the first mass action against the SPD-CDU-CSU coalition, which formed a partnership government following the national election in the fall of 2005.

“The unions are actually an obstacle for Germany as an investment and industrial location.  And instead of rejoicing in the sinking of the joblessness rate, there is only whining and blockade from the employee representatives,” said the CSU politician Markus Söder in response to the nationwide protests.  Söder’s anti-union remarks are not grounded in the statistical reality of German labor economics.  A staggering 5 million Germans remain jobless, when one factors underemployment and so-called “Schwarzarbeit,” illegal work into the equation (almost 10% of the population!).  The previous SPD-Green party coalition government (1998-2005) had already enacted the Agenda 2010, a radical “reform” program whose aim is to dismantle the highly developed social welfare state in Germany.  A key aspect of the program curtailed unemployment benefits, and the reduction of jobless payments was also a source of anger for many of the protestors.  “The course is always the same,” said Fährmann regarding whether social and political differences exist between the new and former coalition governments.  Fährmann highlighted the massive demonstration in 2004 involving 500,000 trade unionists — and unemployed workers — who protested against the enactment of the Agenda 2010.

Fährmann’s emphasis on trade-union opposition was echoed by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) in his recently published autobiography “Decisions, My Life in Politics,” a current best seller in Germany.  Schröder charged such labor leaders as Peters from the IG Metall and Frank Bsirske from the public employees’ union Ver.di with not only attempting to revamp the Agenda 2010 reform measures but also with defeating him as Chancellor in 2005.  Is German union opposition so effective that the labor movement could cause the collapse of a government and change labor policies, though?  The new coalition government seems to disprove Schröder’s thesis.  The anti-labor policies of the Schröder government remain a key component of the new coalition, which reached its one-year anniversary in late October.

The largest DGB rally of October 2006 took place in Berlin where 80,000 protestors — mainly union members but also students and anti-globalization activists — demanded an hourly minimum wage of 7.50 euro, the withdrawal of the increased sales tax, and the immediate creation of 50,000 apprenticeship positions.  “Poor despite full-time work” is a mushrooming problem in Germany.2  The German labor market has no federal minimum wage standards, in contrast to the bare minimum federal and state wage laws in the USA.  German unions had historically avoided governmental regulation in the wage and salary sphere, largely because monetary compensation is a subject for collective bargaining and it was thought that a minimum wage could depress salary and wage levels in the union sector.  However, the growth of the non-union service sector, particularly low-cost supermarkets like Plus and Lidl3, forced German unions to seek governmental intervention to prevent a sinking wage system.  60% of the German public, according to a recent Infratest dimap opinion poll, now want a minimum wage law.

Das geht besserThe motto of the nationwide demonstration is: “Das geht besser!  Aber nicht von allein” (That could work better.  But not without our involvement).  The counter-slogan “Das geht nur ganz anders!” (That works entirely different) served as a critique on the DGB leadership.  The president of the DGB, Michael Sommer, was concerned in the run-up to the demonstration with not causing “damage to the government,” although the governing coalition’s policies remain hostile to the DGB.  The gap between the DGB leadership and the rank-and-file was present during the series of protests.  “We need French-style measures” was an oft heard remark during the demonstration.  A highly organized series of strikes of French trade unionists and students forced the government in the spring of 2006 to abandon its plan to water-down job security provisions, a stellar union victory in the age of deregulation.  The unionization rate in Germany is dramatically higher than in France, and many German trade unionist are beginning to realize that if French workers and students can stop anti-labor policies, then German union power ought to be able to block governmental “reform” measures which target working men and women and the jobless, too.

German unions are, like their American counterparts, still in a defensive posture.  The political strike has nevertheless reappeared on the stage of German unionism and might very well influence a change in the behavior of the business class as well as the pro-business CDU-SPD coalition government.  The IG Metall Ford auto plant in Saarlouis brought production to a grinding halt for three hours in January.  This work-stoppage was political, directed at the coalition government’s decision to raise the age of retirement from 65 to 67.

The political strike is more than a bleep of activity on the cardiac monitor of German unionism.  The action is a kind of dialectical masterpiece, for it serves to radicalize both the class and union consciousness of workers.  It remains hardly used (almost non-existent, in fact), but it is a radical approach full of great potential. Ver.di president Bsirske has declared 2007 to be “the year of wage increases.”  A year of highly organized political strikes would bring German labor into the offensive.

1  Werner Neugebauer, a union leader form the IG Metall, Germany’s largest industrial union with 2.4 million members, told Der Tagesspiegel, a large Berlin daily, that the company sponsored the creation of the union in the 1970s.

2  Critics assert that many unions have negotiated sub-standard wage agreements containing a starting rate of 3 euro and at the same time failed to advance the economic interests of the developing “underclass” in Germany.

3  A recent campaign to organize the Lidl supermarket employees in Berlin simply involved distributing flyers to the customers of the supermarket chain documenting the inadequate working conditions.  The Ver.di union representatives failed to engage in intensive one-on-one discussions with the workers outside of the workplace and assist the employees in building their own union organization.

Benjamin Weinthal is a Labor Notes correspondent for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

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