The German Unions and the New Government

Theodor Bergmann

THE GERMAN economy at the end of the nineties is characterised by high profits and huge export surpluses, enabling the capitalists to buy foreign enterprises for milliards (billions) of Deutschmarks (e.g. Chrysler in the USA, Rover and Rolls Royce in Britain, Danzas in Switzerland, most of the regional media in Poland and the Czech Republic). At the same time, unemployment is rising to 6 millions (in reality – the official, embellished figure is 4 millions). Working hours are extended, workers’ real income and the share of wages in GNP has declined over several years. Huge mergers are organised in Germany itself, too, leading to increased unemployment. Management of the merging firms always aspires to higher shareholder-value, the new indicator of "efficient" capitalism, by dismissing thousands of workers. They call it the synergy effect. Enterprises are reorganised by outsourcing, deliveries just in time directly to the assembly line, teamwork with its own internal quality control, etc. Precarious and unprotected part-time jobs are increasing, so we have large numbers of working people without any social security. Workers are often compelled to become apparently independent entrepreneurs.

The abolition of a great part of the social gains of the trade unions over fifty years was supported and promoted by the outgoing Kohl government. By new laws, dismissal of workers was made easier. Full salary in case of illness was abolished. Strikes were made more difficult. Old age pensions, unemployment benefit, health insurance payments and other social allowances, for which workers have paid all their lifetime and are still paying regularly, were reduced in real terms, sometimes also in nominal terms.

The whole working class – including pensioners and the unemployed – faces a broad offensive by the capitalist class against wages, working conditions, job security, and the validity and coverage of wage agreements. Hitherto the agreements were binding for all employees of a whole economic sector, notwithstanding the size or profitability of an individual enterprise. After the "reunification" of the two Germanies, the agreements have been "opened", viz, East German enterprises were permitted to pay lower wages. Soon West German enterprises claimed to be in the same difficulties and began also to undermine the wage agreement. The employers utilise the huge unemployment to blackmail their workforce: if they don’t accept worsened conditions ... In case of closure of an enterprise, unions often accept a "social plan" offering the dismissed workers a few thousand Deutschmarks. Thus they avoid a struggle for the maintenance of the firm.

The majority of the trade union leadership was mentally unprepared for the new offensive by the capitalists. They still lived in the dream world of class harmony and consensus. This is useful for the capitalists during periods of economic boom, since the working class is kept in modest circumstances, not intruding too much into their profits. In time of crisis the capitalists use unemployment as leverage. Thus the unions face a double crisis. They are defenceless, without strategy, taken by surprise by the open class struggle of their "partners". And hundreds of thousands of jobless leave the unions. The apparatus of the unions is too large and should be cut down. There have also been some serious cases of fraud, destroying inter alia the economic enterprises which were closely bound to the DGB [Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund – the German equivalent of the British TUC].

The answer of the trade unions to the different challenges was a double one. Larger unions integrated smaller ones: e.g. the metal workers swallowed the textile workers, who had earlier merged with the shoe and leather workers; or, the chemical workers merged with the coal miners. In 1949 when the DGB was founded, we had 16 unions, following the principle: one enterprise – one union. Today we have 11 unions, and more mergers are planned. This merger-mania, however, does not solve any of the basic political problems of the movement.

Furthermore, in 1996 the metal workers, the largest union in the world, at that time representing a membership of about 3 millions, asked the CDU Chancellor Kohl to initiate an "alliance for jobs". By goodwill discussions between government, capitalists and unions, ways should be explored and paved to create employment. The unions came with no demands of their own.

The bourgeoisie was not only in government but also rules the factories and banks. The capitalists also rule the airwaves and all the media, thus also public opinion and the minds of ordinary people. Over many years they have established their hegemony and have propagated all their mendacious neo-liberal credos: wages are too high; social security (they call it the welfare state) is too expensive and must be privatised; unemployment benefit is too high; our industry is not competitive in the global market, and to achieve competitiveness wage demands must be very modest; only high profits will create more jobs.

The old-new capitalist religion is to a large extent accepted by the right-wing leadership of the unions (and is very much favoured by the new SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder). The submissive offer by the head of the metal workers, Klaus Zwickel, received a clear reply from the Kohl government: a kick in the backside. Full pay during illness (Lohnfortzahlung im Krankheitsfall), achieved by an extended strike of 34,000 metal workers over four months in 1956-7, was abolished by the government. A strong spontaneous wave of protest in many large factories all over Germany was soon stopped by the unions. But after this kick in the backside it was clear to everybody that the employers do not want consensus with the unions in a period when they have full support from the government for the socio-economic offensive and the slimming of the workforce. Unemployment is useful, so long as the millions of jobless are kept quiet by a basic allowance and by their internalised inferiority complex. This is entirely different in France!

Thus the alliance for jobs cracked very soon – without any positive effect for the unions or the jobless millions. Helmut Kohl made a joke out of the honest and modest union leaders. He promised to halve the number of (officially registered) unemployed to two million by the year 2000. Meanwhile, in the last two years of his chancellorship the number continued to grow.

In their frustration, the unions wanted a change of government; but, being officially neutral between the "popular" parties (all trying to occupy the centre of society), they trod very cautiously and used guarded words. Deep and widespread dissatisfaction among the electorate finally led to a victory for the SPD, forming a coalition with the Greens, in the elections of 27 September 1998.

Soon after the election victory and the formation of the new government, the Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, trusted by the employers, invited the spokesmen of the capitalists and of the leading trade unions to form a new "alliance for training, employment and competitiveness", thus implying that the big German firms are not competitive in the global market and that the behaviour of the unions is jointly responsible for the competitiveness of goods "made in Germany" against the goods produced by French or British workers.

Before accepting the invitation, the employers’ representatives formulated their demands, e.g. reducing their tax burden, continued cuts in social security (called "reform of the welfare state"), modest increases in the impending round of wage bargaining. The last demand clearly aims at the establishment of limits on wage increases before the bargaining starts, which would abolish the autonomy of the parties in the labour market.

The official union leadership had not formulated any demands at all; the president of the DGB, Dieter Schulte, even made the offer to be willing to cut down wage demands if the employers provide more jobs, thus on his part surrendering the independence of the affiliated unions and accepting the credo of the capitalists, that lower wages would bring more jobs –this credo has long ago been unmasked as a propaganda lie. The unions had wished to limit and cut down overtime; that was rejected outright by the other side, since overtime is cheaper than recruitment of additional workers.

The first round of the alliance in early December had a quite meagre result: the government pledged to find 100,000 jobs for youngsters, and several committees were formed for further detailed discussions before the next general meeting of the alliance on 24 February.

Meanwhile mass dismissals were going on in many large enterprises, whether merging or not, in all sectors, including the service sector which was said to provide many new jobs. The new government has revoked some of the anti-social "social reforms" of its predecessor. But the goodies seems to be finished; planned cruelties are on the order of the day. On most issues the new red-green coalition has accepted the credos and beliefs of the bourgeoisie.

The unions ought therefore to have their own demands and must put pressure behind them. The new government may be more susceptible to pressure from below than the former one. Substantially higher wages will boost the internal market and enable workers to forget about overtime, thus creating new jobs. The public sector must offer employment in all fields neglected by profit-makers (social services, education, housing, public transport) – and that at normal wage-rates. This will contribute to bolstering the finances of the social security system, which also ought to be freed from the many tasks which were forced on it by the government, but which have nothing to do with its proper functions.

The unions need their own programme for any meeting with the other side. How to put pressure on the new government, German workers will have to learn from their French peers and their methods. And they will have to teach their hesitating leaders.

First published in What Next? No 12