[Marxism] Germany: Beginning of a rupture between unions and SPD

Fred Fuentes fuentf01 at tartarus.uwa.edu.au
Mon Jul 5 07:43:53 MDT 2004

FI-press-l                             Fourth International Press List

Beginning of a rupture between unions and SPD
Thies Gleiss*

In Europeís economically most important country, 20 years after the last big
trade union battle, a struggle has begun with consequences that go beyond
Germanyís borders.

Thies Gleiss*

In 1984 the majority of the unions organized in the German Confederation of
Trade Unions (DGB, Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund) fought a struggle for a
working week. There was a six-week strike with lockouts and an open
in the trade unions. A minority of unions, then called the ìgang of fiveî
(primarily the chemical workersí and mineworkersí unions) challenged union
and negotiated with the Christian Democrat/Liberal government for a
involving a reduction of working hours. The Minister for Labour and CDU
Norbert Bl¸m passed several laws for early retirement. Today, even these
reductions in working hours are denounced, but it is often forgotten that
were a political reaction to the much more radical demands supported by the
majority of unions in struggle against mass unemployment. IG-Metall, the
workersí union and their allies ó despite the hesitations of their somewhat
conservative leaderships ó formed new social alliances to fight for a
of daily and weekly working hours. The anti-nuclear movement, encouraged by
success of the Greens in the federal elections (for the first time they had
succeeded in gaining representation in the Bundestag) and the huge
movement (although already in decline) opened fruitful possibilities.
these social movements with deep roots in society the battle for the 35-hour
week would have ended as lamentably as the defeated struggle for the 35-hour
week in eastern Germany last year. Chancellor Kohl condemned the 35-hour
week as
ìstupid and absurdî (ìdumm und t–richtî), while the employersí organizations
mobilized in an unprecedented fashion against the violation of their
of taboosî.
For the workers in struggle and especially the political left, the 1985
compromise (which foresaw the introduction of the 35 hour week by stages
over a
ten year period) led to great disappointment, given the promising situation
after such a long and hard strike. This criticism was just, but it should
the same be said that the strike had changed the relationship of forces
the classes, with effects nearly everywhere in Europe. In any case, the
massively blunted the central political project of as ìmoral-spiritual
change ì
that the CD/Liberal coalition (in power since 1982) had set itself. With the
concept of a 35-hour week, which potentially came into conflict with the
framework of capitalist society, a most powerful struggle against mass
unemployment had been put on the European agenda.

A short springtime of the workersí movement
But a hot summer or autumn did not follow this promising springtime. The
leaderships became increasingly reconciled to the conservative government of
eternal chancellor Kohl, above all after the end of the German Democratic
Republic (GDR) and German unification in 1990. The slow rhythm of the
of working time envisaged by the contracts was counteracted by measures of
rationalization and greater flexibility as well as by stepped up rhythms of
work. There was relatively little redistribution of work. Even the union
that only some 140,000 jobs had been created following the introduction of
35-hour week. Thus, a durable mass unemployment rate of around 10% became
profound reality of West German society and after the unification of
the situation got worse. In eastern Germany, the deliberate policy of
deindustrialization after the Anschluss ended with a ìspecific economic
where the real unemployment rate was between a quarter and a third of the
population, where young people left the country for the west and where
time was longer, wages lower and the insolence of the capitalists greater
elsewhere. The introduction of an exchange rate of 1:1 between the GDR Mark
the FRG Deutschemark in summer 1990 produced an economic crash in the east
an economic boom for the consumption industries in the west.
The reticence of the union leaderships and permanent mass unemployment
pressure on wages. Over two decades, there was practically a stagnation in
purchasing power. Many workers lost out on overtime payments because of
contracts for greater flexibility or the implementation of an ìaccount for
annual workî. Meanwhile, every year the prices of public services and
privatized services like post or energy (with the sole exception of
costs) increased. ìReformsî in the health service further reduced disposable
incomes. Moreover, for 14 years, wage earners paid an additional tax called
ìsolidarity supplementî to finance capitalist restructuring in eastern
All this has constantly undermined the material base of the trade union
movement. A poll carried out two years ago by IG-Metall presented an
picture. An overwhelming majority of members, and many non-organized or
ex-members, expected from the leadership first and foremost policies for an
increase of wages. But this primary task of a union, the collective sale of
labour power, was increasingly not being fulfilled. At nearly every
bargaining process the same ritual was repeated. After weeks of declarations
that there was no question of accepting a bad deal a long-term agreement
follow, resulting in a lowering of real wages and a deterioration of the
situation of apprentices even if the rate of inflation remained modest. This
to anger among youth and in the workplace trade union structures, because
union leaderships ignored the decisions of hundreds of workplace councils
rank and file union assemblies which voted regularly for equal increases for
(instead of a percentage) and for shorter term agreements.

Rank and file desertion
That explains why the membership of German union, with the exception of the
police union and professional organizations of train drivers, air pilots or
other specific employees, has been in freefall. Most wage earners had
doubts on whether the unions in the DGB were still a useful instrument for
increasing wages and young people have lost all will to struggle for a
future. Since 1991, the DGB unions have lost a third of their members. Their
spectacular increase after unification with the old unions of the GDR was
reduced to zero in 10 years. The unemployed in particular left the unions en
For 20 years the reaction of the union leadership was a ìmodernizationî of
organization. Several unions came together to form bigger regroupments, like
IG-Metall which integrated the unions in wood and textiles, while the
workers and miners unions fused. Most prominently, there was a merger of the
public services union (÷TV) with the media unions to form the big Ver.di
This was accompanied by ìstructural reformsî and waves of campaigns to win
members ó increasingly without concrete content. The old training schools
union cadres such as the ìAcademy of Labourî (Akademie der Arbeit), like
training and research institutions, were thus either closed, or separated
the unions and often privatized. Beyond this, the Kohl era and the
powerful pressure of neoliberal ideology led to a dreadful political
after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Most union leaderships wanted a recentring of activity in the workplaces
(ìVerbetrieblichungî), believing this would benefit the most important
dues-paying clientele, qualified non-immigrant male workers. But even this
short-term calculation has foundered.
In the political domain, most union leaderships were bureaucratically linked
social democracy, but with growing disillusionment. The role of the SPD as
inadequate ìoppositionî to the CDU/FDP government was accepted with
but loyally. For the electoral campaign of 1998, the union leaderships
more than four million euros to support the SPD of Gerhard Schr–der and the
Greens of Joschka Fischer. But after the victory of the red-green coalition
disappointment was rapid and the unions were several times duped by ìtheirî

A pact for jobs?
Inaugurated following a proposal from the head of IG-Metall, Zwickel, in the
mid-1990s, the ìpact for jobsî (B¸ndnis f¸r Arbeit) was buried after
negotiations. These meetings of ìsocial partnersî ó involving government,
and employersí organizations ó came to nothing. The employers even began to
them and to show their lack of interest by stressing that the union leaders
not ready to make concessions. After an attempt to renew the pact for jobs
1998, chancellor Schr–der showed less and less interest in this concept. The
Greens, among whom adversaries of trades unionism are legion, openly
The theory of the ìthird wayî ó which Schr–der borrowed from Tony Blair ó
denounced the idea of a social pact because, despite the servility and will
collaboration of the union leaderships, this idea is founded on a vision of
society divided into social classes and torn by antagonistic interests.
increasingly preferred to have recourse to extra parliamentary commissions
experts and his ìethical councilî which made proposals to be carried through
ìone to oneî without negotiations. As negotiations around the ìpact for
foundered, Schr–der showed his impatience and treated union chiefs with
If the 16 years of rule by Helmut Kohl were years of lead for the trade
movement, the years of the red-green coalition became a permanent
Interrupted only by the electoral campaign of 2002, the coalition developed
neoliberal and anti-trade union policy, which its predecessors had never
to do with such radicalism. The social democrats and the Greens were thus
bringing about a genuine ìmoral-spiritualî change in Germany.
Basically, this policy contained two programmatic positions:
1. A programme of reduction of wages and social security contributions, to
increase private capitalís rate of profit;
2. Consistent efforts to defend and develop Germanyís position in the ìnew
orderî through economic, diplomatic and also military means.
At least since the reelection of Schr–der in 2002, the expression ìour
costs are too highî has dominated German political discussions. This
accompanies attacks against wage earners on every front. The argument is
wage earners should renounce a part of their wages, called the ìsecond wageî
which comprises pensions, social security and unemployment benefits. In
this amounts to l80 billion euros. The bosses considered this to be too
Although in principle employees and bosses each pay half, in reality this
amounts to a part of the mass of wages set aside for the future. Reductions
pensions, reimbursement of medical costs and sick pay have already favoured
private insurance. But that is not enough for the employers, who see in the
privatization of pension and sickness insurance systems a profitable terrain
insurance companies and banks.
Since 1998, the trade union movement has on several occasions made
concessions in the area of social contributions. It has accepted the partial
privatization of pensions and it calmed the growing resistance against the
payment of a part of the price of medicines and an entry tax of 10 euros for
medical care. These concessions from the union leaderships were so rapid
that it
was no longer even possible to revise the programmes and decisions of the
conferences, which had been previously made. But the most serious problem is
acceptance by the unions of the logic of the ìexorbitant second wageî.
In addition to wage earners, jobless youth and the retired constituted the
second target for Schr–derís ìthird wayî. Mass unemployment costs society 65
billion euros per year and the pensions still more. Besides reductions in
employersí contributions there were political decisions for a reduction of
pensions and above all a reduction of unemployment benefit so that it is
for 12 months at maximum (18 months for those aged 55 and over) instead of
months. In the framework of the Hartz laws the unemployed were attacked on
fronts. The amount and duration of benefits were reduced, the rules
what can be demanded from an unemployed person in terms of accepting a new
were stiffened and now sometimes resemble forced labour. The unemployed are
being steered towards the ìlow wage sectorî which the bosses, experts and
government hope to develop. This sector will be accompanied by part time and
temporary work to bring pressure on the labour market and thus reduce wages
In agreeing to negotiations on the Hartz laws, the union leaderships
accepted a
policy diametrically opposed to the decisions of their congresses and the
previously decided. That is true especially of temporary work, which
to all the polls is mistrusted and rejected by virtually all the German
Note that the current programme of the SPD still envisages the banning of
temporary work!
Recently, for the first time since the Third Reich, capital and the state
launched an offensive to prolong daily, weekly and annual working time; in
words, capital is trying to increase absolute surplus value, as Marx would
it. Already, some provinces (L”nder) have introduced a 41 or 42-hour week
civil servants (who have no right to strike in Germany). This prolongation
is to
be extended to the public sector as a whole and then to private industry.
is a discussion on the reduction of the number of bank holidays and annual
holiday time. There are also plans to push the age of retirement up to 67 or
even later. Behind all these plans, there is one single idea, to lower
wages. In
the contractual negotiations this spring, the employers demanded that IG
accept a prolongation of working time without any wage increase, but this
rejected. Unhappily the union leadership agreed exceptions in case of
experiencing difficulties of an enterprise. That means that there are now
exceptions to the general rule of the 35-hour week, even if the direct
has been beaten back.

Lost strike in the east
Schr–der repeats incessantly that he sees no alternative to a policy of
wages; for him it is a constraint on the globalization the country must
learn to
live with.
The second main point of his governmentís programme, the reintroduction of
military in German politics, has been described by Schr–der as his most
important historic mission. What a decline for a chancellor of the party of
Bebel, Schumacher and Willy Brandt!
Despite some reticence, the union leaderships have accepted this path
rearmament and war. They have unnecessarily renounced a key element of the
identity of German trades unionism. With one exception ñ the head of Ver.di,
Frank Bsirske, a member of the Greens ñ all are SPD members.
Since the capitalist unification of Germany, there have been serious
inequalities in wages and working time between east and west German workers.
the city of Berlin these are sometimes so grotesque that the side of the
you live on decides your wage and working hours! The fact that IG Metall
dared to launch a struggle for 35 hours, even if it was not successful,
witnessed to a certain courage. There were long debates in the bureaucracy,
dominated by functionaries of western origin, which developed into a
battle. The strike for a reduction of working hours was lost in an exemplary
fashion. After three weeks on strike, during which IG Metall in the east
committed numerous tactical mistakes, the head of the union announced in the
press ó without having obtained anything and without a vote ó that the
was over. Before this, some union functionaries and above all heads of works
councils in western factories (particularly in the cars sector) indirectly
affected by the eastern strike through declarations that were completely
disloyal to the union.
After the strike, IG Metall experienced an intense factional struggle, which
ended in the election of two leaders from opposed tendencies, J¸rgen Peters
Berthold Huber, in harness so that the leadership could calm tensions. The
strike had shown starkly that the power of the unions in Germany ó the great
pride of those sectors of social democracy still oriented towards the
movement ó was no longer worth much. The DGB, known as the ìsleeping giantî
because for a long time it did not lose members (or strikes!), even in times
crisis, began to fissure. The disorientation of the unions seemed to have
reached its apogee.

Awakening of the left
But the year 2003 also awoke the rest of the union left, which had
experienced a
rather lamentable existence for some years. There were still organized
left groups who tried, with much energy, but without great success, to get
unions moving. And when, in the context of contractual negotiations, there
warning strikes, it was always this left which took the initiative. Yet
autonomous activities in the workplaces ó of the kind known in Italy,
Greece or even Britain ó were rarer in Germany than snow in Palermo. The
coordination ìnetwork of the trade union leftî was rather a discussion
circle of
individuals without influence and even without the will to push things
For the first time, during the parliamentary debate on the laws seeking a
partial privatization of pensions, protest meetings took place, organized by
independent left. The pension laws, presented by Walter Riester, the former
number two of IG Metall who had become minister of labour, could not be
But these initiatives by the left had as their consequence the formation of
local groups of the trade union left. During contractual negotiations in
2004, for the first time since the 1970s, a trade union left appeared,
presenting an independent perspective and publishing its own pamphlets.
In 2003, particularly after the chancellorís speech of March 13 announcing
famous ìagenda 2010î, for the first time in a long time, we could see
reactions from the largely depoliticized union rank and file. Those who had
always voted for the SPD because they hoped the party worked for a
with a human voice, with job security and better wages, began to revolt.
who were still SPD members left the party en masse. At the time of Helmut
Schmidt, the party still had a million members; in 20 years this figure fell
630,000, with a loss of nearly 50,000 in 2003 alone. Many current members
ashamed to admit it. According to polls, less than 30% of voters would now
SPD. The district of Dortmund, a traditional fiefdom of the SPD, now has
members than the entire former GDR. For some time the SPD has been losing
election and pollsters speak of a deep loss of confidence in the party among
wage earners.

In May 2003, the SPD union leadership tried one last time to organize a
against government policies as in the old days, but this time the meetings
demonstrations organized in several cities did not gather more than 90,000
participants. Some days later, Theo Sommer, the head of the DGB, announced
ìsummer pauseî, an expression which has now entered into literature.
History has taken another path. In the framework of the summer university of
ATTAC-Germany, cadres of the independent left in the workplaces and the
decided to call a national demonstration in Berlin on November 1. At the
time, political strikes took place, against the decisions of the government
the debates in the Bundestag, on the Hartz laws. To respect form, these
were presented as wishing to ensure the contractual autonomy guaranteed by
Constitution, but in reality they were strikes against the SPD and the
governmentís policies. The union rank and file mobilized massively for the
Berlin demonstration. In the 10 days before the demonstration we saw a union
mobilization without directives ìfrom aboveî, but with a certain complicity
the leadership. The result was that more than 100,000 people protested in
against the policies of the red-green government.
When, during the European Social Forum (ESF), a European day of action was
conceived and when the April 2 and 3 were fixed as the date for this, it
clear to everyone that a much bigger mobilization than that of May 2003 and
than that of November in Berlin was needed. The ESF had seen for the first
the public participation of a German union leader, Frank Bsirske of Ver.di.
said he favoured a new alliance between unions and social movements ñ it is
than 20 years since such language had been heard at the top of the trade
movement. A period of free debate has begun and those who have worked in
milieu for years understand and appreciate this change of political climate.
The preceding weekend the demonstrations of April 3, 2004 saw the founding
conference of the left in Ver.di. For the first time, an oppositional
current ó
which is not the sectarian project of a left groupuscule and cannot be
denigrated by the union leadership ó addressed the public.

A new workersí party
Two regroupments to discuss the problem of a political alternative to social
democracy have for the moment dominated press coverage, one in Berlin and
other in Northern Bavaria. If these two tendencies have the merit of being
first to address the public (even that is debatable), they are not the only
and do not necessarily have the most interesting proposals. In any case, the
situation is on the move almost everywhere.
Maybe we are living through the final crisis of the 150-year marriage
the trade union movement and social democracy. Unlike the situation in
this marriage has always been political. Despite the structural and organic
relations between the SPD and the union, there has been an organizational
independence, which results from the development of the SPD as autonomous
workers party rather than a party of the unions. If now the political link
between the SPD and union is in the process of dissolving, the consequences
affect millions of heads and hearts; and the left should react with a new
of mass politics, which was never possible in past decades.
The big demonstrations of April 3 in Berlin, Cologne and Stuttgart were a
indication of this. They represented the dialectical unity of an
from ìaboveî and a mobilization, largely autonomous, ìfrom belowî.
The union bureaucrats, who in the past have blocked or held back many
mobilizations, are being pushed aside; history is being made. Meanwhile we
should avoid repelling those full timers who, for decades, have stuck with
SPD and who feel like orphans today. The process of differentiation runs
the union movement, more or less rapidly according to the concrete
The union movement finds itself facing the huge task of beating back the
attacks on the working class ó employed and unemployed ó in Germany and
internationally. At the same time people around the world hope that the
workersí movement can abort a ìseizure of world powerî by German capital.
are two tasks of historic dimension!
Nobody knows the outcome of the struggles to come. On the road of separation
with social democracy, the union movement can of course be defeated, if it
to avoid the necessary confrontations with capital and the government. The
result will be a US style unionism. The task of the left is to bar the way
such a development. The maintenance of a big unitary confederation,
collective agreements according to the principle of a strong solidarity with
weak and guaranteeing pluralism of positions and currents ó this idea of
unionism is well worth the necessary effort.

* Thies Gleiss is a metalworker and a trades unionist from the district of
Cologne (K–ln). He is a member of the leadership of the Internationale
Sozialistische Linke (ISL, International Socialist Left, one of the two
factions of the German section of the Fourth International ó the other being
RSB, Revolution”r Sozialistischer Bund, Revolutionary Socialist League), and
collaborates in the monthly SoZ, ìSozialistische Zeitungî.


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