Kid Gloves or Bare-Knuckles The Experiences of the FAU-Hannover in Public Sector Strikes, 2005

A detailed account of organizing, radicalizing and participating in a strike at a public health institution, against the context of national negotiations over new pay and conditions for public sector workers.

Background

In May of 2003 the employers of the German Public Services and the reformist "United Service Union" (Ver.di) began negotiating a series of fundamental changes to the existing wages and conditions. This should have been completed in January of 2005 but was repeatedly delayed. Their goal was to completely replace the wage-structure of the "Federal Employee Agreement" (BAT), which had been in force since 1961, which would affect more than 2 million employees. Ver.di and its predecessors (ÖTV and DAG) had long spoken in favor [of this reform], arguing that the BAT, with 17,000 different employment categories, was unmanageable and out of date. It was clear at the start of the negotiations that Ver.di had thrown itself at the feet of the employers. The need to "adapt to the competitive environment" and "open space for negotiation" in order to "accommodate the special requirements of individual branches" were statements usually made by employers, but were now heard from Ver.di. Both sides agreed that working hours had to be flexibilized and wages made more dependent on performance. This was, of course, sold to the employees as a success by Ver.di, who claimed a number of benefits, for example more individual control over working hours.

But supplements were cut, and a new low-wage group within the Public Service was created. Ver.di claimed to oppose the out-sourcing and privatization of "core services" like cantines, hospital laundry services, etc. It was clear, however, that this was not a selfless position. Until then the employees affected by out-sourcing were considered removed from the Federal Employee Agreement, but [it was hoped] that the new agreement would influence the employer to refrain from such measures. These sectors would thus remain under the coverage of Ver.di, in return for which the employees would have to accept menial pay.

Planning the Attack

Until Spring of 2004 all three public employers (the federal, state and municipal governments) were still at the bargaining table. Ver.di only had the federal government and the Union of Municipal Employers (VKA) to negotiate with after the state (Länder) governments, under the umbrella-organization TdL, announced the end of Christmas bonuses and paid vacation in June of 2003 (later to be followed by the federal government) and the end of the previous work-hours agreement on April 30th, 2004. The State of Hessen went so far as to leave the TdL entirely, which meant that the new wage agreement and regulations for public service (known under the acronym TVÖD) would only apply for federal and local employees as of October 1st, 2005. For the 900,000 employees of the state governments the BAT would no longer apply. Several states had already long since lengthened weekly working hours: in Bavaria all those whose employment began after May 2004 had 42-hour work weeks, in Baden-Württemberg it was a 41-hour work week. This was comparable to a nine percent decrease in income. Ver.di, in a separate wage agreement with the Berlin city government, had already agreed in 2003 to a 37-hour week without wage compensation, which represented an 8-to-12 percent reduction in earnings.

Charging to the Rear

The federal and municipal governments strutted in full expectation of victory, brazenly demanding no wage increases and threatening to break off negotiations otherwise. But that was not to be expected, even if Ver.di did concede priority to the reform project. As a consequence, Ver.di abstained from terminating the existing contract on January 31st, 2005, as originally planned. Due to the existing 'peace agreement' clause in those agreements, Ver.di had thus simultaneously abandoned the use of union action. There were a few public displays of resistance, such as "Warning Strikes" in a few states, but only employees of the individual states were mobilized as part of an effort to bring the state governments back to the bargaining table. The state governments remained unmoved. In February Ver.di came to an agreement with the federal and municipal governments, which put the stamp of approval on the TVÖD.

The Minister of the Interior Schily, a former Green and current Social-Democrat who served as chief negotiator for the government, could proudly announce that the agreement and the reforms were not only cost-neutral, but actually reduced expenses. Ver.di presented itself once again as the victor. Only the workers lost out. Some regulations of the TVÖD were not to be ironed out between Ver.di and the employers until later, when the employees no longer had any influence, since their initial vote in favor of the agreement still applied.

As the chief negotiator for the TdL, Treasury Minister Hartmut Möllring (Christian Democrat, Lower Saxony) made it clear from the beginning that the state governments would not accept the TVÖD or any arrangement that they had not personally had a part in. Negotiations would not be taken up until Ver.di conceded an extension in working hours- Lower Saxony was already threatening with lay-offs. Ver.di demanded the restoration of the original wage structure and the acceptance of the agreement made with the federal and municipal governments. The threat of escalation was made repeatedly over several months, but no concrete steps were taken in this direction, leaving the impression that an open-ended fight (as opposed to warning strikes) would never come to pass.

In the snowy February of 2005, for example, the lots of the street maintenance workers in the Hannover area were subjected to blockades. However, as soon as police called on the workers to clear the way for the vehicles they complied. Strike breakers, both in the form of municipal employees and private services, were brought into play.

The Union Bureaucracy hits the brakes

Ver.di still wanted to cut a deal with the individual states and showed itself ready for compromise. The offers it made to the employers were tantamount to a betrayal of the interests of its members. The employers, however, had other plans. In the central questions they refused to budge-the TdL saw in Ver.di's concessions an admission of weakness and demanded more: a retroactive inclusion of a 42-hour work-week for new employees in the contract and a loophole which allowed for the extension of employees' work hours. On April 25th, 2005 Ver.di finally declared the negotiations a failure. After talks were broken off, Wolfgang Denia, then the Ver.di Chief in Lower Saxony, speedily promised the states a "long and hard fight." Hartmut Möllring, chief negotiator for the TdL dismissed this wearily: "We'll outlast a strike." In fact Ver.di had relatively little to use against the states: the level of organization was relatively low, although capable of mobilizing. The readiness of the 900,000 employees to take action in support of the TVÖD had its limits, however. Many had recognized that, compared with the previous BAT, the TVÖD represented a major setback. To save face the Ver.di leadership sidestepped a major confrontation at the last minute: widespread strikes would be held off for the time being, announced Ver.di Chairman Frank Bsirske. Instead the focus would be on "unpredictable, flexible and creative actions." In the end, however, the union bureaucracy had to yield to the increasing pressure of their base. The employees of the University Hospitals in Baden-Württemberg were the first to join the fight, where Ver.di had to call for an openended strike at the beginning of October. Nurses, care workers, as well as administrative, technical and kitchen personnel were at the forefront of the strike against the extension of their working hours and the reduction in their pay.

Divided

By coming to separate agreements with federal and local governments Ver.di had buried its principal of negotiating unified and universal agreements in the public services. Its leadership thus carried the lion's share of the blame for the weakening of its members' fighting resolve in the strike against the state governments that followed. First and foremost, they had created a situation in which public service employees were divided from one another. The local government employees were traditionally the group that fought hardest and most effectively, bringing vulnerable sectors and services, like garbage removal, to a standstill. Now, in the conflict with the state governments, they were being left out of the equation entirely, forcing Ver.di to mobilize across all sectors. Motivation and morale were not very high during the period of warning strikes in the individual states and the principal participants were workers in the area of street-maintenance and hospital kitchen and laundry staff-most of which had never participated in a strike before.

The Silver Lining

Interestingly, the public employees knew very little about the wage-reform negotiations until 2005. Many weren't even aware of what was coming their way. Consequently, the members of the FAU employed in the public sector set to the task of informing their colleagues. Their goal: warding off attacks by the employers and union leadership on wages and working conditions and forcing the repeal of the changes to the contract. For the FAU-Hannover this would mean a fight against both the Ver.di leadership and the employers in the event of a strike.

The situation favored a fighting alternative to Ver.di. The physicians' Marburger Union (MB) ended its alliance with Ver.di after 40 years of cooperation and carried out an independent strike in University Hospitals starting in August of 2005. The MB made its own wage demands, mobilized for a labor struggle and as of September led separate negotiations with the TdL. Another of Ver.di's junior partners, the DBB Wage Union, which represented 40 bureaucratic associations, pushed its own aims and interests again and again in an effort to be heard. <fn> The DBB is a fairly conservative set of associations that represent various public employees. It should be noted that the DBB rarely resorts to anything resembling labor action and usually acts as a negotiating agency. </fn> It should not be forgotten that these associations have nothing in common with the anarcho-syndicalist concept of labor struggle: they are neither democratic, nor based on principles of solidarity and class struggle, not to mention lacking a social perspective or revolutionary aim. Nevertheless, these conflicts between the various unions left members with a new perception of the labor landscape. At the large demonstrations and rallies that took place in 2006 a number of small unions joined the march, illustrating the fact that alternatives to the amalgamated giant of Ver.di existed. Moreover, Ver.di's surrender on the point of a unified wage agreement proved a great help-the struggle could no longer be confined to the sensitive areas of the public sector, rather it encompassed all public services. A further factor was the dissatisfaction with the union bureaucracy, which issued calls for strikes without consulting its rank-and-file members. At this point many recognized that they were being called on to fight for the deterioration [of their working conditions] and came to distrust the Ver.di leadership. These factors all contributed favorably to the ability of the FAU-Hannover to make its presence felt.

First Steps

Ver.di had called upon employees in the institutions of higher education in Lower Saxony to carry out a warning strike on November 23rd, 2005. Very few heeded this call in Hannover, however. 40 workers gathered before the strikers' tent in the course of the morning to protest the "Wage Agreement for the Sciences" proposed by the Rectors of Higher Education (HRK) and call for the adoption of the TVÖD, which applied for federal and local employees. These Ver.di members simultaneously demanded that the 38.5-hour-week be retained-an objection to the wage structure that provided for a 39-hour-week. The University employees organized in the FAU-Hannover were the ones to get to the root of things, however. Together with their colleagues from other public sectors (the Wunstorf State Hospital and the Youth Association) they expressed their support for the fight against the TdL and the HRK, but also their opposition to the TVÖD negotiated by Ver.di. The four members of the FAU present spoke instead in favor of retaining the BAT wage structure, which should then be retroactively applied for all new employees and part-time student employees.

Both striking Ver.di colleagues and non-organized University employees reacted to these proposals with interest, resulting in a fair amount of discussion on the subject. Questions regarding the FAU were answered and Ver.di's political monopoly was broken. A Ver.di functionary, by way of contrast, reacted with sour suspicion of this "split-attempt," but in the end he had no choice but to respond to the arguments of the FAU. He too finally had to admit that the introduction of low-wage jobs through the TVÖD would not hinder further outsourcing in the public sector.

On Strike

In February of 2006 the votes of the reformist unions for a series of short, open-ended strikes in the public sector finally came. A number of individual FAU members worked in the public sector, in the State Hospital of Lower Saxony, a psychiatric clinic near Hannover, and at the University of Hannover. From February 16th to May of 2006 the University was the site of an on-going strike. One FAU member was almost continuously engaged and was even elected to the strike leadership at the end of February, a post he held until the end of the strike. His membership in the FAU was soon a article of common knowledge among his colleagues but this presented him with no special difficulties. During this period he was involved in the preparations for and the organization of the strike assemblies and took part in numerous actions at the university and in Hannover, in addition to joining strike delegations in Lower Saxony. During this period Ver.di and the DBB-Wage Union called only for one-day strikes at the Wustorf Hospital, normally in conjunction with large demonstrations and rallies.

After each of these strikes further labor action was called off by the strike committee, an unelected body composed primarily of members of the works' councils from Ver.di and the DBB, which were mostly made up of shop stewards. The open-ended strike was thus continuously interrupted, although not ended, but could be launched again at any time.

The FAU member who was employed at the hospital participated in these one-day strikes. Furthermore, he attempted to influence the discussions in the strike assemblies and mobilized both organized and unorganized colleagues, engaging employees of other clinics in discussion. During this period he did not present himself as a member of the FAU in his workplace; he had decided against this course of action after a patient outed him to several of his co-workers a short time prior to the strikes. In the weeks following this incident he encountered problems with colleagues that labeled him a "leftist extremist" instead of recognizing him as a union activist. Eventually the situation cooled down; he had always had a good collegial relationship with his co-workers, and after some time this atmosphere was restored. So, while he did not present himself as a member of the FAU, he was able to present its demands at his place of employment.

At the demonstrations and rallies in Hannover the scene was quite different, with the FAU Hannover distributing flyers and "Strike Information" and carrying their flags. In the beginning the strikers from the hospital were bussed to Hannover, including the FAU member. There the striking and supporting members of the FAU-Hannover met and continued to the rally point together. While this members' colleagues didn't make an issue of this they also showed no more interest. <fn> It should be noted that a Berufsverbot, essentially banning an individual from working in a certain profession or field, can follow from association in a radical organization, although it is rare that such a case is actually brought before a court. </fn>

Thus the FAU joined 1,500-2,000 strikers from the Hannover area as a union in its own right. The goal was to spread the FAU's message among the employees of the various public services. The demand for the retention of the BAT met with positive reactions from many of the strikers, and the group itself found considerable resonance among the crowd; they were asked repeatedly what the three initials stood for. One among the interested knew better: she asked the comrades if they were the "German CNT."

In March the striking public sector members of the FAU-Hannover printed 400 copies of an pamphlet titled "Strike Info #1," in which they detailed the labor rights of those employees not organized in unions. These were distributed among local and state employees in the Hannover area. The response was overwhelming: Ver.di members helped to distribute the pamphlets, too, as their union couldn't offer anything like it. The first strike newspaper produced by Ver.di at the University of Hannover even cited the pamphlets in their first edition in March.

On March 9th, 2006 the FAU-Hannover took part in the state-wide public workers' demonstration on the Opera Square (Opernplatz) with an estimated 20,000 participants. Two more "Strike-Infos" were orginally planned, one in April concerning the status of the wage negotiations and another in May in connection with the Wage Agreement for State Services (TV-L). Unfortunately, due to time constraints these could not be produced.

Inside the Workplace

The situation in the Wunstorf Clinic can serve as an example of the FAU-members' ability to influence the strike in workplaces. Here 120 employees per shift went on strike from the 14th to the 16th of February, 2006. The enthusiasm for the strike was still very high at this point in a number of clinics and hospitals-nearly 100% of the workforce was behind the strike. In many locations only the minimum staff necessary remained. Those colleagues that formed this "skeleton crew" not only prevented strike-breaking, they also showed their support by wearing buttons that made clear their solidarity with the strikers. Just a day before the strike (13th February) the employees were informed by the hospital administration that an emergency service agreement had been signed between the hospital, Ver.di and the DBB's Hospital Union of Lower Saxony (FNL) to ensure patient care. No one explained to the employees in what way this agreement was to be carried out, however, so they took the initiative and organized this for all hospital wards, with considerable influence from the FAU-member on-site. It was decided that hospital operations would be limited to the weekend and holiday service levels, which had immediate consequences, as the strike enjoyed only limited support from the hospital professionals. In fact, starting on the very first day of the strike, those colleagues on emergency duty were subjected to attacks from the chief physicians and even individual doctors and psychologists, and conflicts arose regarding the definition of emergency services. The on-duty colleagues refused to fetch patients to the visiting room or transfer them from one station to another for therapy, for example. The FAU-members' good relationship with his co-workers paid off during these days, as both pro- and anti-strike workers refused to carry out these tasks-no one wanted to stab their coworkers in the back. The atmosphere in the hospital's strike locale, by contrast, was less than united: in principle the different sections kept to themselves. The proposal was made again and again to march across the hospital grounds, which was vetoed by the strike leadership. Only on the afternoon of the 14th were two such marches organized. By contrast, attempts by the representatives of Ver.di and the FNL to convince the hospital workers to distribute their informational leaflets were practically boycotted.

In the course of the weeks and months that followed the motivation of the striking workers at the clinic went down. After more than three months the majority of the state employees were suffering from strike-fatigue. The growing holes in the wallets of the workers began to have an effect even on those who wanted to continue the struggle. Ever greater numbers of colleagues gave up and in the period around Easter the level of mobilization declined considerably. This could be largely attributed to the union leadership of Ver.di and the DBB. For many it wasn't clear after a certain point why they were still on strike. When some members of the strike leadership took up work again while the strike was still on, it was clear that the struggle was being run into the ground. The incompetence of the union leadership in individual workplaces took on grotesque form. Calls for days of action often didn't reach the colleagues in the Wunstorf Clinic wards until shortly before they were to take place, which meant that few were even aware of them. As a consequence, the influence of the FAU-member also declined, limiting itself primarily to colleagues in his ward of the hospital, which stayed solid. But the strike no longer had the same effect that it did in its first days.

The Contract

On May 19th, 2006, the state employers of the TdL came to an agreement with Ver.di, known as the "Wage Agreement for the States' Public Services" (TV-L). 83.5% of Ver.di's membership voted for the agreement and an end to the strike. Nevertheless, in the Wunstorf Clinic and at the University of Hannover a number of votes from Ver.di and DBB members were cast for continuing the strike. Others had long since demanded an end to the strike, hoping for a return to the original contract. Neither were successful. The details of the TV-L were to be negotiated in the following months, a process from which the union rank-and-file were excluded, just like in the case of the previous TVÖD agreement. Broadly speaking, the TV-L was based on the TVÖD but included a number of "state-specific" conditions. Differences arose in working hours, for example, and not just between the individual states, but also between different occupations. The workers in the hospitals and clinics, street workers and those in the child-care sectors came away in the best position: the work-hours among these groups spanned 38.5 to 39.9 hours a week. Here it became clear that those who had gone on strike the most achieved the best results, although this had little connection to actual participation in the strike, as a comparison between the Wunstorf Clinic and the University of Hannover shows. In eastern Germany a 40-hour work-week was maintained. Yearly bonus incentives were also staggered, ranging from 30-95% of pay, depending on occupation. The equalization of pay for "new employees" is being carried out in progressive steps rather than immediately. Escape clauses were accepted that made it possible for employers to discard these working-hours and the incentive bonuses after the 31st of December, 2007. These would then have to be re-negotiated with the individual states. A far-reaching division of the various employees has been all but pre-programmed by the unions.

Summary

During these strike months Ver.di got down to brass tacks, which was noticed by everyone involved in the strike and even those whe weren't. For the first time in over a decade the public employees were on strike-but alone. The Ver.di national office and the DBB had suffered a major blow and were now faced with a dilemma. The leadership needs the rank and- file in order to carry out a labor struggle with sufficient force. But the bureaucratized unions had done everything possible to make sure that the workers never learned how to fight. In many places the union leadership lost credibility due to its actions: empty promises and deception of the members; strategic and tactical errors during the strike; a lack of presence and engagement in the workplace on the part of the functionaries; disinformation and a lack of coordination between the various strike committees, which acted alone and lost influence as a result. While many voted for the strike who did not participate in it, as time went on even organized workers began working again, and thus became strike-breakers. This was the cause of considerable anger among strikers, at the Wunstorf Clinic, the University of Hannover and elsewhere.

What happened in these months was the result of the internal policies of those associations that are based on bureaucratic full-timers, a lobby-group mentality and passivity among the rank-and-file. Consequently, majority of members waited for directives from above. That the strike took on other, more combative forms and in some places a type of network between the various workplaces arose is a credit to a number of individual workers. Many workers had never even discussed the conditions of their workplace or what to do about them before the strike and were taking their first steps, so to speak. Of great interest was the openness with which everything was discussed, from raising consciousness about the strike and scabbing, to the goals and aims of the strike, and what was wrong with the union and the negotiations and how things should be run. During this time labor struggles elsewhere that were gaining momentum were discussed. On February 13th, 2006, garbage workers in Osnabrück blockaded the dump trucks of an industrial complex, which got a violent response from the police.

Elsewhere public employers tried again and again to subvert the strike. Strike breakers were sent in, or at least used as a threat. These were subjects that were taken up during the struggle. The positive result of these developments was that certain amount of self-organization became standard. This did not extend into the daily affairs of the workplace, unfortunately, where the union base retreated into passivity.

The public employees organized in the FAU-Hannover participated in the strike from day one. The fact that they continued the struggle despite the fact that they were not elegible for Ver.di strike pay raised their standing in the eyes of their colleagues. Their goal had been to mobilize as many colleagues as possible for the strike, regardless of union membership, and promote self-organization. With their "Strike-Info," in which they answered a number of legal questions surrounding the labor struggle, they tried to dissipate any fear of participating.

Overture for the Future

In the course of the strike a number of Ver.di sections were formed at workplaces that kept their distance from the union leadership. The workplace newsletter "Netzwerk" is still published at the University of Hannover and the member of the FAU there participates actively in its composition. On August 7th, 2006, two FAU members (from the University and the Wunstorf Clinic) who were active in the strike accepted the invitation of a Ver.di section opposed to the union leadership to introduce the principles, structure and activities of anarchosyndicalism.

The local section showed great interest and declared its readiness to cooperate with the FAU Hannover in the event of further conflicts. Since then, however, this section's membership has shrunk to the point where there are very few active members.

In the Wunstorf Clinic such structures failed to materialize at all. Here there was considerable overlap between the issues of the public services strike and the privatization of the majority of hospitals in Lower Saxony since the summer of 2006. Workplace and public actions took place in reaction to this in which FAU members also participated. Following the conclusion of a further wage agreement between Ver.di and Lower Saxony, however, the resistance collapsed.

At the end of December, 2007, the clauses of the wage agreement concerning working hours and yearly bonuses run out, and the FAU-Hannover is preparing for the struggles to come. Since the time of the strike a number of new public employees have joined the FAU. In the May of 2006, during the strike, the FAU-Hannover decided to set up a local strike fund to aid its members involved in labor struggles. Offers of material and financial support during this first strike came from the FAU sections in Bremen, Hamburg, Hannover and Osnabrück.

In case FAU sections elsewhere go on strike a regional strike fund has been established. In the coming strikes the FAU-Hannover intends to act far more aggressively and with heightened public presence. The goal is to build membership so that permanent workplace groups can be established. Heiko (Local Federation Hannover)

Translation from German by John Carroll