About waves, strikes and recomposition - Wildcat

In 2006 there were more strikes in Germany than during the previous twelve years. In 2007 their number will be even higher. »Going on strike is becoming fashionable amongst the Germans«, announces a headline in the national daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau.

Submitted by Khawaga on December 27, 2009

About Waves, Strikes and Recomposition1

In 2006 there were more strikes in Germany than during the previous twelve years. In 2007 their number will be even higher. »Going on strike is becoming fashionable amongst the Germans«, announces a headline in the national daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. When we added a strike poster to wildcat #69 in spring 2004 it was rather a general statement. Today we have to – or rather, we are able to - discuss strikes in a much more precise manner, because there are actually strikes going on! There are strikes against company closures, against redundancies and extension of working hours – but not for improvements. These strikes do not put into practice the workers' power which we refer to on the poster, the power to question capitalist valorisation by simply refusing to do something. Often the reality on the shop-floor looks rather shitty (see examples in this issue: the ample documentation on working in the adult education sector, on temp work and on the Auto5000 scheme at VW), but officially this reality is hardly ever made a topic of discussion during the strikes. This is one reason why many strikes remain isolated from each other, and why in the end everyone fights for themselves. A strike wave is something different.

The global counter attack

It is only from books or films that people under 40 know the history of the worldwide class struggles and the certainty of being able to change the world which was based on them. This is because since 1980 at the latest everywhere in the world counter-revolution has been on the agenda. A precursor was the CIA coup in Chile, which got rid of the elected left-reformist government on the 11th of September 1973. The following combination of hard repression against the radical left and a new economic policy, which steered towards a head on collision with the working class, was put into practice for the first time in Chile and then implemented in many other countries.

In wildcat we often portrayed the reasons and motives for this counter-revolution by starting with its origin: the international revolutionary movement at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s. When we look at the last dregs of this movement we can see how important it was for capital.

In Britain the massive strike wave of the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79 toppled the »Social Contract« (curbs on wage rises) introduced by the Labour government, which threatened penalties against companies which increased wages by more than five per cent. After several weeks of a strike at Ford a 17 percent wage rise was agreed. Not only were factory workers on strike, but a major part of the infrastructure came to a halt after truck drivers, dockers, grave diggers, rubbish collectors, bakers and hospital workers laid down tools. The Prime Minister had to apply for new credits from the IMF in order to re-establish the solvency of the country. The massive propaganda of the political right against a Labour government which helplessly faced union power paved the way for the Thatcher counter revolution with the parliamentary elections in autumn 1979. Thatcher prohibited many of the previously common strike tactics and did not shrink from using severe punishments. The defeat of the miners during the strike of 1984/85 ended an epoch in which the workers in Britain were the most strike-prone in Europe, but despite their hard fights they never went beyond the limits of union struggles. In 1978, 9.3 million working days were lost due to strikes, in 1979 this number increased to 29.5 million.

In Italy the defeat of the FIAT workers after their months' long strike against mass redundancies in 1980 put an end to an epoch of workers' struggles. During this epoch Italy had been a laboratory for revolutionary experiments in many ways. In the USA Reagan ordered the arrest and handcuffing of striking air traffic controllers only one year after he took power.

At the beginning of the 1980s counter revolution became the predominant tendency world wide: military governments in Poland and Turkey; IMF credits only in exchange for neoliberal policies and welfare cuts; everywhere the unemployment rate increased to about ten per cent; everywhere state welfare benefits were cut.

The military suppression of the movement in Tienanmen Square in Beijing and the collapse of state capitalism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s was bashed into our heads as "the end of history", meaning the end of any utopian vision of a free and better society. "Civil" wars in Africa and former Yugoslavia and the imperialist war of aggression (Iraq) fostered this message during the 1990s.

The situation in the Federal Republic of Germany

The particular situation in Western Germany is characterised by relatively poorly developed independent struggles and relatively strong unions. This is because of the following developments.

Here, as well, the last big struggles took place at the end of the 1970s (for example the steel workers strike in 1978). After that everything was pointing towards a policy of crisis. In 1974 there were about one million people unemployed, at the beginning of the 1980s their number increased to over two million. The SPD (Social Democrats)-lead government under Chancellor Schmidt started a policy of welfare cuts – the so-called Operation 1982 – smoothly continued by the conservative Kohl government which took over in a coup-like move in autumn 1982.

Despite the theatrical rhetoric of the CDU (Christian Democrats - Conservatives) government against something which they used to call »union power«, in West Germany the unions took over the lead of the modernisation process targeting the structure of production. During the 1980s the unions managed to maintain the wage level of the collective contracts and thereby avoided the fall into deep crisis like most of the other unions in Europe. For a decade the demand for a 35-hour working week - which had its origin in the liberal left milieu - dominated collective bargaining. The workers paid for every reduction in working time with poor wage agreements and further flexibilisation of their working time. Three-shift models and work on Saturdays are common in most factories now, as are working time accounts based on an annual calculation. Once the flexibilisation was achieved the real working time – which had been reduced continually during the previous 50 years – increased again.

The second development specific to Germany relates to the »re-unification«. In 1987/89 Western Europe experienced a wave of self-organised struggles (students, railway workers, hospital workers, workers in the education sector). Workers formed coordinations organising themselves outside of the unions, because they mistrusted all institutions. Only the movement of the hospital workers managed to have an impact in Germany – after that there was only »re-unification« on the agenda. At this point completely different topics were brought to the fore and during the first years after re-unification all potentially threatening conflicts were appeased by financial concessions – workers of closed-down companies were put on short-time work, but given full-time wages. The crisis didn't come until 1993, when the federal bank increased key interest rates, but then it kicked in even harder. The number of unemployed sky-rocketed. And it took a very long time before emancipatory movements developed from below again. A big part of the youth in the East shut themselves off in the right-wing scene, while in the West during the 90s »left politics« equaled anti-fascism or being »anti-German«, or both.

The social attacks of the labour-green government (Hartz I-IV – a welfare reform) no longer just targeted »marginalised groups«. The cutting of the Arbeitslosenhilfe (unemployment benefit), which had previously been calculated according to the last wage earned, forced the unemployed to take a considerably worse paid job after a year of unemployment, at the latest. This measure has dissolved the downward rigidity of wages and, amongst other things, resulted in the fact that real wages in Germany are now located in the lower ranks of the EU countries. The income disparity between well paid sections and the low paid has increased sharply. Permanently employed workers are increasingly badly paid as well. Poverty has officially become fact for about a tenth of the population, mainly unskilled workers, but nowadays for skilled workers as well: particularly people with a migrant background and/or with children.


In summer 2004 the »Monday Demonstrations« (against the Hartz IV reform) brought the &raquot;social question« to the streets. The Daimler workers in Mettingen (south of Germany) blocked the B10 (a major road) and the Opel workers in Bochum went on the first wildcat strike in a long time, organising a six-day long company assembly. The »social anger« and the »enough is enough« atmosphere also expressed itself in more militant forms of struggle of (school) students: occupations, highway blockades etc.

For 2006 the official strike statistics of the Bundesagentur fur Arbeit, a government institution, registered 166,000 strikers and 429,000 strike days, the highest number since 1993 (593,000 strike days). The high number is due to the long strike in the public sector and to the strikes for a »social collective contract«. By pressing for »social collective contracts« the unions found a means to organise struggles against company closures as regular strikes with the usual formal features, e.g. a collective bargaining commission and strike pay. In the case of company closures, strikes for Sozialtarifverträge ("social collective contracts") restrict the issue of negotiations to the question of qualification measures (for the sacked workers), or transit employment in specifically formed companies (normally limited to a year). In cases where the company »only« sacks parts of the work force, the negotiations for a "social collective contract" are normally about wage cuts and working time extension. The results of these negotiations are "compromises", which are always celebrated as victories by the unions, because the »compromises« prevented worse. The result always solidifies a worsening of the previous standards (wages, working time etc.). In a brief and pointed way we can say: whoever goes on strike will be in a worse situation afterwards. The frustration at the end of such strikes is pre-programmed. Whoever is sick of it all will take the severance pay and leave. Severance or redundancy pay was another significant characteristic of strikes in recent years: high redundancy pay was dished out and it was mainly the strike activists who left the company in this way. During all struggles against company closures a significant part of the work-force wanted high severance pay instead of further employment at all costs (or cuts).

Hence it is not the case that people who are engaged in struggles against re-locations or closures have nothing to loose. You get strike pay, there is a real chance of getting severance pay and the transit companies offer you a year of hanging loose while receiving 90 percent of your former wage. The importance of the integrating function of the German welfare state (including strike pay and severance pay) becomes blatant if we imagine what would happen if workers threatened by closure actually had nothing to lose. Despite all the strikes and movements, real wages in Germany continued to shrink in 2006.

Are there any industrial workers left in Germany?

Of course – and not just a few – despite the fact that their working and living situation drifts further out of the spot light of public interest. Given the background of job cuts and flexibilisation, the "working class" has lost its fearsomeness as a threat to the ruling social relations and therefore it has lost its political visibility.

What does it mean when Germany becomes an »export world champion« for the umpteenth time in a row? In total, German companies export (calculated on a common currency) more goods than any other country in the world. These goods are mainly industrially manufactured goods (machines, chemical products and cars). They are assembled or finished in factories in Germany, although a big chunk of the necessary pre-products are manufactured abroad (their share as part of the valorisation was 24.4 percent on average in 2006). Industrial production grew faster than the total economy – but it was re-structured at the expense of the workers. Departments of simple mass production were closed, parts ordered from suppliers. Because of this mainly older workers without qualifications lost their jobs, which up to this point had been relatively secured by a collective contract.

There are still about 7.5 million industrial workers in Germany, although their number decreased slightly during the last year. The phase of de-composition of the old working class and of their entitlements in Western Europe is in its final stage, but it has not finished yet. Examples are the re-location of nearly the total production of home appliances (washing machines etc.) to Eastern Europe and Turkey and the re-location of electronic appliances to East Asia.

The way in which these defensive struggles of the »old« mass workers is orchestrated by the unions and the media results in a clear message, which is directed at those other workers who might have the possibility to prove its opposite: »It can only get worse for you«.

In the booming export industries, the unions act very cautiously: some token strikes, short collective contract negotiations, quick agreements, everything, but not a strike! In those sectors workers could have completely different possibilities to go onto the "offensive" and to win. Struggles which finally enforce clear improvements would be extremely popular and be able to carry along workers from other sectors.

"Export world champion" also means that these 7.5 million industrial workers are highly productive and that they still are at the centre of surplus value production in this country - surrounded by "knowledge workers" (engineers, mathematicians, controllers) and "service providers", which supply the company with temp workers.

What are the experiences of struggle?

The majority of workers in Germany have not been on strike during the last 30 years (if we ignore symbolic token strikes). Given this background it is of major importance that the unrest which started with the self-organised activities in 2004 – the Monday demonstrations, the B10 occupation, the strike at Opel – has not lost its momentum since then. The forms of action are more militant and more new things are tried out compared to the past. The fighting subjects are more multi-faceted (nurses, car workers, bin men, teachers, kitchen hands...). People are open to other experiences and are interested in other people getting involved.

In Germany, finally, people experience struggles of a broader scope. In the past the few experiences fizzled out and the following struggles started from scratch again. They took place in a social vacuum. All strikers felt left alone and unnoticed. This has changed recently: bit by bit the strikes build up their own social terrain. When people get involved in a confrontation they have already heard of other struggles and they know who they can learn from. When the striking BSH-workers (Bosch-Siemens Hausgerätewerk)2 arrived in Kamp-Lintfort (Siemens used to have a mobile phone plant there, but it was sold to BenQ and many workers were sacked) and they where welcomed by half of the town inhabitants, something like a proletarian public sphere emerged, at least in certain aspects. A direct exchange between workers took place, which was neither mediated by the union nor by RTL (private TV channel). In Germany such a circulation of direct experiences has been rare so far.

In such conflicts workers gain experience and they think about how to make themselves stronger. More and more people are fed up with fighting for »deteriorations«, they want improvements. But on the few occasions where independent forms of struggle and demands developed the unions did not hesitate to call off the strike - by quick agreements even against the will of the majority, if necessary by using threats.

Many experiences are gained, but are they struggle experiences? What is a struggle? Generally speaking it does not matter if the struggle is lead within or outside the unions or other institutions, neither is its impact on public opinion of final significance. More important are forms and means of struggles. And the most important criterion is whether it is a movement from below, a collective move by people who step outside their daily life together, who break the rules collectively and even risk something by doing it.

New conditions – new subjects?

New working relations arrived in the factories as well. In many »high wage companies« fragmented conditions are the norm. Newly hired people work under significantly worse conditions. In the automobile industry, too, temp work is the normal transition phase to a permanent contract. Temp workers, who have seen and worked at assembly lines in different plants have different experiences and have different needs and wishes than the classical core work-force. Is it only that the old class figure is de-composed and appeased from within or do a new mood and new forms of resistance emerge? The strike at FIAT in Melfi (south of Italy) in 2004 demonstrated that conflicts at supplying companies can quickly jump over and spread into the whole work-force. It also showed that workers who are allegedly isolated within just-in-time production can actually fight together.

The end of globalisation?

Since the end of the last century it's become clear that wars (Afghanistan, Iraq) and the flight of capital from direct investments into speculative assets both turned into boomerangs (internet and real estate bubble). The euphoria of production re-location and outsourcing came to an end. Since 1999 in Seattle - when a WTO-meeting failed for the first time while the no-globalisation-movement and rank-and-file workers' activists protested in the streets together – many new subjects got involved in struggle world-wide: university and school students (Chile, France, Germany,...), unemployed (Argentina, Germany,...), precarious workers (agriculture workers, cleaners), migrants (the 'si se puede'-movement in the US in spring 2006 managed to kick off the biggest workers' demonstrations in the US history).

Previously struggles had been on the defensive for a long time, parts of the old working class resisted being cleared away but there were no strikes in the booming sectors. For example, in spring 2002 the »biggest strike wave for 50 years« shook the north-west of China (mining areas, oil industry). In Poland the struggles against privatisation of the mines and the heavy industry lasted from 1983 to 2003. The multiple movements in Argentina after the uprising in 2001 remained within these limits, as well: those who fought were the unemployed and those workers who used to have state guaranteed jobs.

This has changed: struggles take place where industry is developing rapidly, like in China, Vietnam, and India. But not in the automobile industry in Eastern Europe: there union-lead token strikes and quick agreements take place - exactly like in the industrial core sectors in Germany. Though in Eastern Europe we often see double-digit wage increases and the employers complain about 'wage pressure'.

Classically so-called free wage labour functioned in such a way that proletarians entered the wage work relation »by themselves«. They were willing to leave their village behind and to accept a miserable living situation and hard work in order to lead a better life compared to their previous one, thanks to the wage they received. But once these »new workers« start to fight, they question the whole shit. This is true for the revolutionary movement 1917/18 and for the struggles of the mass worker in the 1960s. In both cases capital reacted with repression on the political level and a leap of development on the social level.

Today generally it is assumed that a leap of development, which would be able to raise the conditions of workers in Asia to a level comparable to the standard for the industrial workers in the western countries, is not possible within capitalism: due to technical, ecological and spatial reasons. Does that mean that only the repressive option is left? How long will workers produce mobile phones, computers or cars, which they will not be able to afford in the near or medium-term future?

- By going on strike automobile workers in Russia manage to get a massive pay rise.
- Chinese workers in Romania manage to enforce a significant wage increase.
- After several weeks of strike textile workers in Bulgaria get a 27 per cent wage increases
- Vietnam: the broad strike wave of 2006 was followed by another one in spring 2007. The government felt cornered and enacted a law on the 1st of August 2007 which prohibits strikes in the key sectors

Some random examples? Not at all: these are all struggles which run parallel to the axes of accumulation of international capital - struggles within an industrialisation process which is directly integrated into global production. Often the struggling workers are employed in »world market factories« or in production units which are closely interlinked within the international division of labour. After the big hype about the so-called BRIC-states (Brazil, Russia, India, China) now the so-called New Eleven are the focus of capital in its search for possibilities of valorisation: Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam. It is obvious that in most of these countries there are waves of struggle going on. We have to seriously tackle the following question: are we experiencing a new political re-composition since 2006 on a global scale? Do we see, for the first time in history, struggles of a world-wide working class?

The reserve army of labour is not unlimited. Widening gaps between an adequately qualified work-force, wages and conditions of valorisation emerge. A new leap forward in accumulation depends on recently proletarianised workers and the corresponding social infrastructure. For the boom regions in India and China experts forecast a near exhaustion of the reservoir of workers.

Migration is able to partly fill these gaps, but it does not lead to such severe class divisions as in the past. For example, the strong migration to the USA before the First World War practically resulted in the collapse of the workers' movement at the time. Today migration contributes to the formation of a world working class.

Fromthe inside and from the outside

Some questions have to be asked anew here in Germany, as well. Despite the high unemployment the little economic upturn was sufficient to unveil the most surprising scarcity of recent years: the lack of a work-force. The official labour agency (responsible body for job centres, job schemes etc.), the government and the media only talk about a lack of skilled workers and engineers, but behind this a general lack of a work force »qualified for industrial work« is hidden. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Ukraine there is a lack of people who are willing and able to fulfil the requirements of contemporary &raquot;normal« flexible working conditions: assembly line production, shift work, necessary abilities like reading, writing, technical understanding, computer skills. In Eastern Europe this lack of a work-force already has a negative impact on the growth of the GNP.

The work-force on which accumulation depends here in Germany cannot be replaced as easily as the employers, media and the simple unemployment figures might suggest. For how long will the unions be able to keep the wage pressure away from the »production location« Germany? Or to ask the question from a different angle: how can the struggles go beyond the control of the unions?


In German history independent strikes have emerged in two particular social contexts. They erupted as 'wildcat strikes' lead by people who had no institutionalised representation for their urgent concerns, and as 'second helping strikes' of workers, who were able to enforce better outcomes than the union by leading their struggle independently. In this sense the strikes of the last three years were not »autonomous«, but they became noticeable because of their creativity and their significant degree of self-activity. And in many mobilisations a driving force, voices and debates were expressed which pointed beyond the institutionalised embrace. Sometimes people do something, but they do not know it yet: the »Solidarity March« was the idea of the BSH-workers (see www.prol-position.net/nl/2007/08/bsh/bsh1). Nevertheless they did not manage to turn the strike into »their issue«. The majority still thought that nothing could be achieved without the union.

People in struggle who cannot seriously harm the employer by refusing work are dependent on »publicity«. So far as they have no publicity, they feel left alone and unnoticed. The union organises public attention for them, by inviting VIPs to the strike tent or by getting them into the media with the help of RTL film teams. In both ways dependence and deception rises to a new level. In addition the union monopolises all contacts with the outside, with workers of other companies or plants as well. In order to be able to lead independent struggles the slowly developing »struggles' own terrain« mentioned above is of extreme importance.

Part of this terrain would be that it becomes common practice to go to strikes and to get involved oneself. We can help to create links to other struggles and struggling workers. Which experiences have been made in other struggles - leaflets, talks in the strike tent, film screenings,... BSH-workers have criticised explicitly the »autonomists« for not helping them to break the (information and contact) monopoly of IGM (metal union) and the MLPD (Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany).

In France since the 1980s there is a tradition to relate to strikes coming from one's own social situation: e.g. as »users« of public services (transport, hospitals, energy etc.). In combination with our »criticism as users« the strike terrain could be extended (»We criticise the health system... and especially therefore we support the nurses and their struggles«). The impact of consumer boycotts is often over-estimated, but in combination with a strike they can rock things! For example the stickers which denounced Siemens home appliances in Media Markt shops (important chain) as »scab goods«, while workers of the BSH plant were on strike in Berlin. Leaflets distributed in shopping centres criticising the home appliances and which especially because of their criticism call for the support of the strike. There are many possibilities.

It is important that everyone contributes with their own work and struggle experience and to relate to each other despite those many differences, which are meant to make a common perspective impossible. We have to address the rapidly increasing differences of working conditions and conditions of reproduction. The struggles need an egalitarian drive. Against the segregation into many different »life styles«, against the aggravating differences between wages, they have to emphasise the common, they have to produce the common. Only in this way can a space be created where people can reflect collectively on their experiences and on their collective action. Then we can talk about revolution again, instead of severance pay and bonus systems.

English translation by prol-position.

Reproduced from Wildcat Germany - check out their excellent English-language content here.

  • 1"Recomposition" is a concept which tries to relate changing working and living conditions and the forms and impacts of class struggle. Instead of applying an abstract, philosophical or monolithic concept of working class, the notion of "class composition" emphasises that due to its inner contradictions, namely the struggle of the exploited, capitalism has to change and recompose the conditions of exploitation continuously (new technologies, company closures, new work organisation, migration etc.). This creates new divisions and new common reference points within the proletariat. Only in their struggles, which have to relate to the "recomposed" conditions, can workers overcome these particular divisions, find new forms of organisation and re-appropriation and "recompose" themselves as a new movement.
  • 2 See various other articles in prol-position news, e.g. http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2005/04/washing, http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2006/05/appliances, http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2007/08/bsh/bsh1