Yes Men and Egoists


On August 8, 2007 a German labor court in Nuremberg issued a temporary restraining order preventing a strike called by the GDL train drivers’ union, to the delight of the business press. The strike had been approved by a great majority of the train drivers, and was due to start on August 9th.  The state-owned German railroad is a prime target for the Anglo-American (“Atlanticist”) neoliberals, and the emergence of labor struggle at the Deutsche Bahn is viewed with alarm. — John Mage

As always in cases of doubt: reality is always more Vulgar Marxist than theory.  Merely the good chance of a large strike, merely the seriously demonstrated will of wage workers to not allow themselves to be pushed around, is sufficient to demonstrate the falling away of ideologies in an extremely short period of time on the one hand and the strength of reactionary-bourgeois reflexes on the other hand.

Has anyone, on the occasion of the locomotive drivers’ strike, heard any of the ideological tropes of the past few years?  That we live in a flexibilized service society, in which “labor power entrepreneurs” and Ich-AGs negotiate their fees in a manner of hearty-discursive play?  In a society in which work is disappearing and therefore in which “we all” want to calculate somewhat more tightly?  Negative.  Instead, there are everywhere discussions and articles about how soon millions of Germans could come to work too late or not at all.  Everyone wants to work, just not the locomotive drivers, which is why their strike needs to be banned, and by the high courts, because the estimated damages for “the economy” would be too grave.

One can already diagnose, at a point in time in which the — announced — labor struggle has not yet escalated: that the ideologies of the “end of work” could only thrive in a social situation in which there were no, or at least no openly, noticeable conflicts over wages and labor-time.  If the situation changes, these “soft” ideologies disappear, and a harder way is adopted.

Trade unions must engage in a realistic politics, for our co-workers, for the businesses.  Sometimes we are at one with [Deutsche Bahn chief] Mr. Mehdorn.  We cannot simply be naysayers out of principle.”  Thus did Klaus-Dieter Hommel, chairman of the transport trade union GDBA, scold the locomotive drivers’ trade union GDL.  “The wage demands of the locomotive drivers are completely excessive,” he said on another occasion.  The scolding goes hand in hand with a complete self-abandonment (“realistic politics”), which taken together yields a miserable picture.  The front of opponents of the locomotive drivers stretches from the colleagues of related trade unions to the usual suspects of the Springer press.  It is advocated that one should de-solidarize, the futility of the strike is invoked, the criminalization of the locomotive drivers is threatened — which the official strike-ban poses as a possibility in the case of further insubordination.

The Labor Court of Nuremberg, which prohibited the strike on the 8th of August, did not act however in the capacity of a repressive organ.  It examined the four pre-conditions of a legal strike and set one aside.  The four conditions are: a strike ballot with corresponding result, the end of the no-strike period (which is valid during the time a collective bargaining agreement is in place), the goal-directedness of a strike (which in the end must result in a collective bargaining agreement), and the proportionality of a strike — the level of harm inflicted upon a business.  It is precisely this proportionality which the labor court sees as not ensured, due to the period of high travel activity until the 30th of September.

One cannot speak of repressive behavior on the part of the courts for the reason that precisely through the judgement the court called for a mediation and emphasized what the point of a strike is, at least from a national perspective: settlement.  Maybe the Nuremberg judgement will be lifted by the next highest court.  But what is decisive is that with the judgement the imperative for settlement — the appeal that the two parties must find a way to each other — is once again in the foreground.  Of course, behind this legal judgement is concealed force, since the locomotive drivers are being forced not to strike.  At the same time, this force is translated into the “democratic discourse” and for that reason is no longer apparent as force.

Instead, Heiner Geissler and Kurt Biedenkopf have entered the stage, as mediators called upon — or at least accepted — by the trade union.  The union states, after it threatened unannounced strikes despite the negative judgement, its desire for agreement.  Heiner Geissler and “King Kurt” stand for the next transformation.  After force has flowed into a process oriented towards consensus, this process now has its personification.  Both the old politicians can bring into effect their experience as training masters of the national community — as Geissler has already done during a few strike mediations.  Both are conservative, but both have also proven their capability to show respect for the “other side.”  Geissler is a member of ATTAC; Biedenkopf played the role of the kind, integrative country father in Saxony.  This labor struggle, which is in no case over, demonstrates very emphatically how institutionalized class struggles functions.  Very seldom in the past few years has the game of business leaders, the courts, and the media been so transparent.

In the background, strategists of the large trade unions and business leaders puzzle over which attitude they should assume in the future within such constellations.  The taz observed very aptly last week: “small skilled-trades unions are more and more successful — which brings joy to both business leaders and the labor left.”  It seems that the “immoderation” of the locomotive drivers (what is meant is the alleged shamelessness of their wage demands — but since there is no such thing as a just wage, there also cannot be any such thing as a shameless wage demand) weakens the entire trade union movement, including its collective bargaining politics.  The radicalism of a small, specialized professional group might be able to inflict great damage immediately, but could prove to be easier to manage for capital.  Because this radicalism, according to the fears of the large trade unions, is only particular and contributes to the further de-solidarization among workers and employees.  Every professional group fights for itself, and — supposedly — a few can fight more successfully (skilled workers) and others less so (the precariously employed, the semi-skilled, “mass workers”).

But here is the truth which is being supressed: the majority of wage workers are already split.  That the demands of the locomotive drivers are egoistic is uncontested.  But that the insistence of wage workers only manifests itself in Germany in the form of radical formulations of professional groups is a consequence of trade union policies.  As long as the functionaries of the large trade unions orient towards “a sure eye” and mediation and do not find it curious to be in agreement with the Mehdorns of the world, they shouldn’t wonder why the situation of their clientele does not improve.  The functionaries’ “store,” that gigantic mass of forces of labor which the trade unions look after in their capacity as a giant market cartel, continues to rapidly fall apart.  Every egoistic behavior of a small part of the wage-dependent population, however small, proves itself to be far more realistic than the realism which is demanded from on high.

Felix Klopotek is the co-proprietor of the Free Jazz record label Grob and the author of the book How They Do It: Free Jazz, Improvisation und Niemandsmusik.  This article first appeared in German in the August 16th issue of the leftist newspaper Jungle World.  

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