Germany: many strikes and a big scandal

BERLIN – Was the German working class suddenly turning super-militant? Some may have been fearful, some hopeful that on the rail lines and elsewhere the old IWW-Wobbly song from 1915-USA, “Solidarity Forever” was literally coming true: “… without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”

The strike of locomotive engineers stopped freight cars May 19 and passenger traffic the next day. Unlike eight previous strikes by the same union, the strike was not for 30 hours, 42 hours or six days – but with no end date. Although the state-owned but largely independently-run railroad company tried to maintain a skeleton schedule, two-thirds of the wheels stopped turning; also city rail service was cut by 40 to 85 percent. In Berlin the crucial “S-Bahn” elevated system tried hard to achieve at least 20-minute intervals on main routes. Subway, bus and tram lines were unaffected – but overfilled.

The long-lasting dispute involved not just wages and hours – a 38-hour work week, no more than fifty hours overtime and proper weekends, all considered necessary for rail safety – but also a jurisdictional conflict. This small union, Germany’s second oldest, going back to 1867 (though interrupted by the Nazi years), insists on its right to organize not only engineers but also other staff working on the trains like conductors and restaurant workers, and not be swallowed up by the general transportation union, seven times larger but usually tamer.

Many Germans are more or less pro-union, but of course this strike did hit people going to work or school each day and frightened those planning travels over the long May 23-25 weekend (not just Pentecost Sunday, Whit Monday is also a holiday). The issues were not easy to grasp for non-railway people and the media, aided by the national transportation minister, did what they could to work up feelings, especially against the union head, who is alternately ridiculed – easier due to his Saxon dialect – or attacked, in hard language.

Then on Thursday an agreement was reached: to end the strike and turn the matter over to two mediators. They are a curious pair; for the company Matthias Platzeck, 61, a Social Democrat, until 2013 minister-president of a coalition with the LINKE (Left) in Brandenburg state, and for the engineers Bodo Ramelow, 59, once a union official but since December the first LINKE minister-president in Germany, heading a coalition of LINKE, SPD and Greens in Thuringia. Ramelow pointed out right away that the new written agreement permitted the union a separate contract, a key issue. But neither man is a fire-eater, both have made past compromises, so it seemed fairly likely that they would work out an agreement. (Almost ironically, that other, larger rail union now threatens to strike for its own demands. But not before the holiday.)

New labor law

Then, a day later, the entire picture changed. The engineers had accused railroad managers of purposeful foot-dragging, partly so people would blame and hate the union for the inconvenience, but also because a new law, due for passage by the Bundestag, would hinder just such small independent unions from organizing and making contracts at companies with larger unions – not only the engineers and train staff but pilots, air safety controllers (now also considering a strike), even medical doctors working in clinics.

Good as industrial unions are in general (and historically important in the USA in the 1930s), this law was clearly intervention in free union activity and, it was admitted, it would prevent many strikes. Some saw it as a quid-pro-quo move by Social Democrats in the government coalition after Merkel’s Christian Democrats agreed to the new minimum wage law. Others saw it as just one more move against militancy. And now it has been passed; the LINKE, the Greens and some mavericks were unable to stop a big government majority. It will immediately be challenged in the Supreme Court – with a very uncertain outcome.

This law and the train strike have divided an already edgy labor movement. The union federation (DGB), founded in 1949 with sixteen industrial unions, is now down to eight after many mergers. More worrisome, the number of organized employees dropped from about 25 percent in 2005 to a little over 16 percent now, with only a slight recent upturn. The demise of East Germany and its entire union movement did not nearly bring a big expected growth since East German industry was also largely disposed of after reunification. And the alarming increase in part-time, temp, make-work-at-low-pay and other “precarious” jobs, usually with no union membership and a cause for lower wages, has taken its toll. And yet, more than 6 million people are still organized – if not always united.

The new law is officially welcomed by four big unions: metal workers, mine and chemical workers, construction workers and transportation workers. These four, even when they demand wage increases, generally get along with employers. Their initial post-war opposition to the so-called “social market economy” grew more docile over the years, with broad acceptance and support for the status quo, just like their main Social Democratic ally. (Key actors in this process during their formative years were two from the U.S. AFL-CIO, Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown, who generously received and handed out State Department and CIA dollars.) For these four unions, the days of big, militant strikes are generally forgotten.

But three other unions, mostly with more women, are not so glued to the SPD and sometimes lean more leftward, though rarely daring, even on a local scale, to show too much sympathy for the LINKE (Left) party, labor’s most consistent ally in state and federal parliaments but still largely taboo in West Germany thanks to old feelings against the GDR.


They are the teachers union, the union of food and restaurant workers (both headed by a woman), and a union with the unusual name ver.di, an abbreviation of Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft – United Services Trade Union United Service Workers. It unites all kinds of people: retail clerks, public employees from hospital workers to garbage men, bank, insurance and other white collar workers, postal employees, workers in the paper and printing field, with special branches for photographers, writers, musicians and artists, and even one for so called sex workers. Its charismatic president, Frank Bsirske, 63, belongs to the Greens, but ver.di has taken part in annual left-wing Rosa Luxemburg conferences, worked with the anti-globalism Attac movement [the ‘Association pour la Taxation des Transactions financière et l’Aide aux Citoyens’ or Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens], and joined in the Blockupy demonstration against the European Central Bank in Frankfurt in March. It is big, over two million strong, topped only by the metal workers union with 2,300,000, with which it has occasional jurisdictional disputes; there is often “bad blood” between their heads. Ver.di, certainly the fightingest of them all, leads more strikes than all the others combined, in part because its more numerous female membership faces more discrimination than most blue-collar men.

Right now ver.di’s postal employees are conducting a series of short warning strikes on wage and hour issues, first in one state, then in another. In the state of Brandenburg bus and streetcar drivers are demanding more pay, and also switching stoppages from one county to another until authorities make an acceptable offer. Nurses and other personnel at Charité, Berlin’s famous university hospital (the name is purely historical), after years of negotiations and a brief warning strike, are now voting on a possible unlimited strike (with full attention to patients in need of care). Their demands are for an urgently-needed improvement in the nurse-patient ratio. They demand no more than 1:2 in intensive care wards and 1:5 at normal wards, instead of the present ruthless ratio average of 1:12.

For two years employees of the Amazon mail order firm have been fighting hard for decent wages against bosses who have done everything to use strikebreakers and set shops against each other.

In the most dramatic of ver.di strikes, since early May the staffs of most nurseries and kindergartens and some senior care facilities have gone on strike to demand a 10 percent increase in wages, now far too low in view of their long training. This includes a wish for more respect for their demanding and important job! Thanks to the example of the GDR (though it is rarely mentioned), the offer of child care, private or public, is now at least officially required, with a wide variety of usually low prices, which means that the strikes cause problems for a large percentage of working parents. But the women (and a few men) saw no alternative and hope the growing pressure will help them win out.

NSA and BND scandal

Does this strike wave reflect a change in an otherwise more placid economic and political scene? Crystal balls are rare and untrustworthy. Golf balls, or giant structures resembling them, now take more headlines but are far, far less transparent than the crystal kind. Round and white, these radomes or radar domes, located in Bad Aibling in Bavaria, are tools in the all-encompassing spying activity which has joined the American NSA with the German BND [Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s intelligence agency, the German CIA equivalent] in a long-lasting series of scandals. The German side, the media cry, lets cloak and dagger men from Washington not only in on government doings all over Europe and beyond, but on a host of business matters, too, with a list of maybe 5,000 “selectors”; words, names, and places to be sorted out from the billions of messages. And this is in clear violation of basic German law.

The differing reactions of those caught up in the limelight are more than interesting. Washington kept largely mum. Merkel, now busy pressuring southern Europeans, especially in Greece, to keep up “austere” measures no matter how many go hungry, medically untreated or commit suicide, or pressuring eastern Europeans from Tallinn to Kiev to step up pressure against Russia, reacted only by asking “What scandal?” or by justifying it: “After all, they are our closest allies!”

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats and vice-chancellor in the coalition, sounded off loudly against the responsible officials. His party somehow can’t break out of a 25 percent slough in the polls (against the 40 percent average of Merkel’s side of the coalition), and he sniffed a chance to win points. But when a few journalists recalled that his party had been in charge when the NSA-BND agreements were made, Gabriel’s voice lost its angry tones and almost got lost entirely – only briefly, of course.

And the head of the BND, the Federal Intelligence Service? Hailed in front of a Bundestag committee, he asserted that he had known nothing about the whole spy deal until just last month. It was all done by his underlings. Anyone believing that would be a good customer for the handsome bridge spanning the Rhine at Cologne – if someone will sell it.

And no one seemed to recall that the whole BND organization was founded in 1956 by Nazi ex-general Reinhard Gehlen, after building it up as an annex of the CIA right after the war. Some of its ties, not only to Washington but to Gehlen’s earlier buddies, never completely lost their influence, as a growing pile of evidence would seem to indicate.

Angela Davis visits asylum seekers

I’ll close on some very different notes. Human rights activist Angela Davis, visiting Berlin (and other places), went to the former school building where forty asylum-seekers are living, part of a larger group of African and West Asian refugees still fighting for the right to gain asylum since 2012, when they walked to Berlin in a long caravan. Davis was barred by police from entering the building, but met asylum seekers and their supporters at an outdoor meeting where she compared their fight with that of immigrants in the U.S. and the incarceration of great numbers of Americans. Older East Germans know her name well; during her imprisonment and trial in California in 1970-72 she received literally tons of supportive letters and cards from GDR young people, often adorned with a hand-drawn “Rose for Angela.” The trucks with big sacks of mail even impressed the presiding judge.

In the same Kreuzberg district she visited, the weekend will see the annual Carnival of Cultures, one of Berlin’s nicest events, with a parade on Sunday – some 60 costumed dancing groups from the many nationalities living in Berlin. Over a million spectators are expected along the parade route.

Of interest to art-lovers: Berlin’s Old National Gallery is featuring a new exhibition contrasting Impressionist and Expressionist paintings. Long lines of art-lovers were already lining up.

And for nature lovers: a fine lilac aroma often filled the air, countless blossoming chestnut trees overwhelmed the eye, while happily tweeting, amazingly agile chimney swifts arrived back in town.

Photo: About 50,000 workers from the social and education services were now on strike. Ver.di Facebook


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.