Background to a simulated strike

Submitted by libcom on July 23, 2005

"After 11 days of strike, our members thought they could get everything they wanted"
- Monika Wulf-Mathies, president of ÖTV, the Union of Public Services, Transport and Traffic Employees

It seems that the German working class has got over the shock of reunification. The common enemy is revealed, people are learning from each over. There have been the first joint East and West strikes. The wide spread sympathy for the ÖTV strike shows that the working class realises, that it is no longer a question of blue collar workers against white collar workers«, typists hate their work every bit as much as the assembly line workers, and the dustmen have seen bank workers on strike. At the same time, young people are moving again...

From Wildcat No. 59 - June 1992

Background to a simulated strike
Class Struggle!

In the year after the greatest imperialist show of strength since Vietnam, the imperialist forces are confronting the mostly deathly silent, ignored and shaken by crisis force: the working class. The capitalist powers are indebted as never before and the working class is reluctant to pay. On the contrary the work (motivation) crisis has reached Japan. In the USA, »proletarian shopping« has reappeared, in Germany the biggest trade union strike wave for 20 years is taking place. Everywhere, the established political structures are in deep crisis. The state capitalism of the East broke up first, but »parlamentary democracy« is not in a much better condition. People have a deep mistrust of »bosses« in the trade unions, political parties and governments. At the same time every attempt of »participation«, »wage conflicts« and, similarly, »democratisation« measures threatens to go off course.

»After 11 days of strike, our members thought they could get everything they wanted« (Monika Wulf-Mathies, president of ÖTV - Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, Transport und Verkehr - Union [of] Public Services, Transport and Traffic [Employees]).

It seems that the German working class has got over the »shock of reunification«. The common enemy is revealed, people are learning from each over. There have been the first common [East and West] strikes. The »wide spread sympathy« for the ÖTV strike shows that the working class realises, that it is no longer a question of »blue collar workers« against »white collar workers«, typists hate their work every bit as much as the assembly line workers, and the dustmen have seen bank workers on strike. At the same time, young people are moving again. Capitalism's ability to integrate has reached its limits at the hour of its apparently greatest historical triumph (the victory over the October revolution).

The »German model« drew its stability from the ability to absorb class tensions and pressure from the social movements through reforms. Nowadays that is financially possible only on a »European level«. The unification of Europe is taking an unforseen turn. But we don't believe in a theory of »the self-destruction« of capitalism. Capitalism will only be overcome, if a revolutionary force emerges, which is strong enough to develop its own utopias, new forms of communication with each other and a new relationship with nature. With the working class having rejected everything in recent years (nationalism, self-sacrifice and trade union strike charade), capital has been pushed into crisis, now the question increasingly is to be put the other way round, as a question of revolution.

Rioters in the US demonstrated a great love of life and social significance. They have hit back against racist shit and the drug economy in the ghettos. This clear »NO« to capitalism in one of its centers has been heard worldwide. Is this the beginning of a new phase of working class struggle, as the Watts-riots of 1965 were?

The state can try to resolve its financial crisis only by passing on the costs to the working class: further taxes and rises in rates are already on the agenda. What will be the forms of resistance against them? - Poll Tax riots in Germany? The »bread revolt« as in January in Italy? Let's see!


Perhaps by the appearence of this issue the fuse will have been lit in the engineering factories. The IG Metall [metal workers union] is under the same pressure as ÖTV, but has however to deal with a clearly more militant membership...

In any case, the leaden eighties are behind us. And if strikes in the print industry and engineering factories should come, so shortly after the strike movements in the banks and public services, many new questions could arise this summer very quickly and in a very practical form.

Amongst the Left, many myths have collapsed, as also shown by the dissolution statement of the Revolutionary Cells [autonomous guerilla movement]. That can lead to a fictitious discussion, or it can lead to more people analysing what's happening around us.

It would be worth it!
The Strike as a Spectacle

As never before with a strike, the ÖTV's wage struggle at the beginning of May was a media event. By these means the picture of a massive disturbance of public life was presented, deserted underground stations, piled-up mounts of rubbish, abandonned post, blocked airports. Whoever tried to take a closer look or talk with the strikers however, quickly discovered that the actual subjects of the strike, the workers, were mostly absent from the strike. The media are characterising the event accordingly:

»Strike: One Woman against the Chancellor«, headlined [the weekly magazine] Stern, »Everything stands still, because of powerful Monika's will«, joked a radio reporter.

We don't want to present a falsely unified picture of the strike. In some areas and towns there was active participation in the strike, subversive action from people, for whom the trade union's idea of a strike was dull. In many work places once again it became normal to talk about strikes. Many experiences - especially in previously strike-free areas, such as the banks - brought forth a new enthusiasm to strike. But it seems that there was very little grass-roots activity. Perhaps this took place, where strikers were pressurized by employers, and more was needed than simply following the instructions of the union officials. In these circumstances the strike lead to an experience of going beyond the norms. And there was, unexpectedly for some, a sympathy in the population and among the workers for the strikes.

Only it wasn't their strike. Reports of colleagues about the pattern of the strike are mostly the same: At the entrance door of their work place, they were met by union representatives who they often do not know from work, who told them that there would be a strike on that day. They were to go to the union office or the strike center, to sign for their strike pay. Then they could - or should - go home. Therefore, little was heard in the public from strikers themselves. If there are meetings, then they are trade union arranged press appointments for styled photos or set-piece rallies, to which the strikers were ordered as to a normal staff meeting. »I do everything for the strike pay« said one participant, »it's like we had another boss for a few days, the union«, another comment.

There was rarely contact between the strikers and the public, and that even when the strikes took place in areas, which are to do with relations with people. Instead of this, we read every morning at the breakfast table a few apologetic, absolutely uninformative ÖTV adverts in the paper. This grotesque situation went so far, that workers read in the morning paper, that their work place will be on strike, go to work as indicated, and because of the strike's organisational problems find themselves at work after all!
Strike - without endangering the economy

The ÖTV strike plan was to block key areas of public services, such as busses and trams, refuse collection and airports - without having to risk the mass and active participation of the workers. So, for example, airports were paralysed by a strike of the airport fire crews alone, schools were shut because the janitors were on strike and didn't open the main waterpipe. In addition, refuse collection and public transport are traditionally »strongly« unionised areas, where the strike can be carried through. As well as these, new sectors were brought into the strike, where up to now there was no history of strikes. - There was however the problem for the union, of sectors being drawn in, which in recent years have acted autonomously (hospitals, parts of the education sector).

On the other hand, the ÖTV made sure to cause as little real damage as possible, that is: not to disturb economic life. In the postal services for example, business mail was dealt with first. A blockade of rail freight traffic, power supplies or telecommunications could have paralysed wide parts of the manufacturing industry - but it didn`t happen.
Strike - without the workers

In this strike, the workers gained no sense of their own power, there is no beginning of an ability to organize and act autonomously. »Organisation« - that is the institution ÖTV, which through the members' strike ballot drew only the legitimation, the permission to strike, but which as always decided alone where strikes would take place or not. According to their rule books, the union executive committees are not tied to anything by ballots - a vote for strike doesn't mean there will be one. And no workforce has the right to decide for itsself whether to strike or not. That is the democratic German »right to strike«, that at the moment is held up as an ideal for the whole of Europe.

The ÖTV knew from the beginning that the strike brings with it risks for itself, that it raises expectations and stirs emotions, which the union can perhaps no longer control. But in this strike it could - even if in some towns and departments work was not so hurriedly recommenced as instructed. The result of the ballot - 56% against the acceptation of the 5,4% wage rise - only proves this analysis. If the strike had really been one of the workers themselves, then the union would not have been able to blatantly steamroll over the vote. This shows as with the unbegun steel strike, the alienation of these strikes from the workers themselves - there is widespread discontent with the behaviour of union bosses, but no move to take these strikes in the workers' own hands.
Strike - a Natural Phenomenon?

The public face of the towns had changed because of the public transport strike. One could see a strike, but hardly as a movement of the workers. The strike seemed more like a natural phenomenon for which no one can be held responsible. That was not only due to the absence of militant workers in the streets. Behind it also was the general and correct feeling, that this strike is only a part of a comprehensive economic and political crisis, which has come about in the last four years of national ecstasy. This crisis has been described in the media since the beginning of the year above all as the question »Who will pay for the reunification?«. The press has told us that in this strike it is only a question of 25 DM more or less, but everybody knows that that is only the superficial cause. Large numbers of people understand the real issue as who has to carry the can financially, how much the »ordinary person« must put up with, and associates with the strike the hope of being able to combat the looting. But the strike as spectacle was to bring about the contrary: the demonstration that there is no more to share out, that from now on savings must be made and moreover that there is no point in fighting. One can always better push through a bad wage settlement if it has been struck for. Perhaps especially for this reason a - for public services unusually long - strike was necessary, even if this brings with it the danger of loss of control for the unions.
Governmental crisis and Welfare-state

Exactly that makes the strikes important for the government. After the end of the public services strike, a government spokesman explained, that with the rejection of the compromise proposal they had consciously risked the strike, in order to make clear, that no more money is there. This crisis is clearly seen in the fundamental economic data: After reunification the government promised that in the united Germany everybody would be better off - obviously the government calculated at that time the limits of national feeling - and it tried to back it up with material gains.

Up until now the heralded construction of a greater German economy in an orgy of national feeling has not begun, rather the welfare state has been unwound: from a capitalist institution, intended to guarantee social peace and the workers' capability to work, to a great maintenance- and redistribution machine. The new legal schemes, like shorttime-work to zero hours for one or two years, early retirement in the mid-fifties, a lot of self-administered job creation projects (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahme - ABM), are not tailored to attach a whole working class, recently having broken with planned economy capitalism, to productive wage labour. It became clear soon after Kohl's election victory, that the working class in the West was expected to place its »work-readiness« in the service of this project. A working class, which had registered its claims on the chancellors much vaunted »longest boom in post-war history«. There are reasons, why it is so hard for the political authorities to make suggestions, which can actually be put into practice - remember the whole palaver about the extension of weekly working hours, the tightening-up of sick pay regulations (Karenztage), cuts in ministers wages etc.- which go deeper than the purely financial debacle. All society's institutions and their mediatory role for the functioning of society are drawn into the crisis. The difficulties became obvious when at the same time as the beginning of the public sector strike, Genscher's resignation led to a crisis of the governing parties. The new pressure for change, which found its symbol in the end of the state capitalist dictatorships, doesn't stop at the Western institutions of a democratic dictatorship of capital. Regardless of which authorities, they will be affected adversely by their simple similarity to state capitalist practice. The for many years legitimation argument of the moral superiority of the »free West« to the East, is no more - attentive conservatives have been warning for some time that because of this, the whole democratic system could be drawn into crisis. The violence and oppressive character of the Western social structures is now clear to see. More than by the increasing popularitary of various extreme right parties in the last regional government elections (Landtagswahlen), the ruling class see their consencus threatened by the massive withholding of votes. Politics appears as the dirty business it is: corruption, enrichment, protection of power. Also the mediatory authorities which could hold class pressures in check no longer function sufficiently well - the trade unions are also affected by this crisis.

The ruling clique is conscious of its dilemma: on the one hand it needs a further boom to get hold of the financial crisis, on the other hand exactly this boom, these »seven good years«, which everyone talks about, produced the desires and demands which must be held back. The crisis begins to attack the foundations of the social consensus, as the [weekly] ZEIT recognized, when it portrayed an apocalypse: »We must once again humanise society and tame the greed (!) of our citizens. Without change, the liberal constitutional state will not survive. Perhaps we need a small catastrophe (!), to drive the people's out of hand desires back on to a reasonable scale«. What could it be? A good and solid economic crisis with new soup kitchens, should the earthquake in the Rheinland have been a bit stronger, more small or bigger wars?
Four years of built up - and new - class pressure

The storm clouds were gathering in autumn 1989. The employers predicted a »bad prospect for the 1990 wage round«, big companies had already sought to protect themselves with additional payments in the face of threatened extraordinary wage demands. The direct background was the 1987 agreed wage settlement in the engineering industry with a three year term, which had been granted to the workers in mid-boom, undermining real wages - the trade union policy of cuts in working hours made this possible. If one believes the official figures, real wage levels developed as follows: in 1986 there was for the first time after the years of economic crisis once again a rise in real wages, of 4,1%, then one of 1,9% in 1987 and of 2% in 1988. In the following year real wages sunk back again by 0,8%, in 1990 they increased by 4,8% and 1991 they fell again by 0,4%.

This development in real wages parallels the political situation. In 1990, a genuine wage rise was necessary, the trade union itself tried to remove the tiresome subject of »cuts in working hours«, but took into account on the other hand the wage-depressing consequences of German reunification - which became real because of historic events such as the collaps of socialism and the Gulf war. In early 1990, in Wildcat #49, we discussed the new wage pressure in detail, and put forward ideas, as to whether or how more explosive struggles could develop out of the escalating »battle for money«. Then we wrote: »In this sense, there are possibilities in the coming wages battles for class struggle - but only if the workers develop in them their own organisation and power«. The present strike wave is an example of how this could be prevented until now.

However, concessions in wage politics are necessary - at least because of the situation in the employment market: in many badly paid sectors, labour is hard to come by. For skilled workers a job in public services is uninteresting because of the miserable wages in comparison to industry. And the hope that the potential of the East German labour market would fill these gaps has not come about on a sufficient scale.

In many less important sectors, wages were settled at a »high« level in comparison to the steel industry: The wood industry at 6.95% after a compromise suggestion of 6.2%, mechanics in NRW (North Rhine Westphalia) 7.1%, presented at the time as a structural improvement, the food industry in Hessen and Rhineland Pfalz 8.02%, the shoe industry 7.05%, and presently during the ÖTV strikes the shops and distribution industry in NRW has been settled at 5.9%.

And in the East itself it is not possible at the moment to push back wage pressure or tie rising wages to a corresponding growth in the intensity of work. The trade unions must emphazise their demand for a quick equality of Eastern and Western wages with much fake radical language. At the same time, in many sectors where the trade union has no influence or the prospects for struggle are poor, the already miserable Eastern wage rates are undercut.

(Even the ÖTV pays its employees in the East the full Western rate only since a defeat in the employment courts)
Crisis of Trade Unionism

In order to be able to continue their peacemaking role, it was important for the trade unions to polish up their image with militant gestures. The strike was intended to save a part of the unions' reputation which was lost by their inactivity in the face of tax and fee rises last year. Only in this way can they maintain control in critical moments. It is not out of the question to suspect a plot between employers and trade unions, to manufacture strikes as a common emergency action to ensure the stability of union-handled work relations. The loss of influence of the German trade unions is not so easy to see as that of battered unions in Italy or France. The seven fat years of the boom were at the same time seven years without bigger strikes. The newspapers are speaking of a »loss of trade union identity in the 80s« and discussing with understanding the role of strikes as an advert for new members.

(That is also the reason why the ÖTV rejected the suggestions for a graduated wage agreement. It tries hard to win members in better paid jobs and it doesn't want to disappoint them with poor wage rises for the better paid.)

In Germany, union strikes are paid strikes, that is, a union member receives strike pay of 60-70% of normal wages. In order to prevent the short term exploitation of the union in advance of likely strikes, union rules tie the payment of strike money explicitly to members already several months in the union. But, in practice, at the moment that is only paper because they are happy to organize more workers through the means of a strike. So union representatives reported proudly that a few days before the beginning of the strike, there was still a wave of new members. Naturally these newly won members were immediately given strike pay. After the wage settlement, the ÖTV reported it had won 50 000 new members - probably there'd be yet more, with many application forms delayed by the postal strike.

Of course the crisis of trade unionism goes deeper than what the strike can compensate for. For years, trade union officials and academics have debated the problem of individualisation, the loss of union legitimation in the work place, the consequences of new forms of work organisation (team work) on their influence in the work place. The strike shows however that all attempts up to now to compensate for this loss of influence have failed:

Expansion of union services, for example the trade union's own credit card, highbrow discussions about internal union democracy and a new dynamic culture, the idea of »wage scale reform 2000«, through which the unions want to participate in new concepts of individual participation, work.

Instead of this, they are forced to advance a quite banal demand for high wages. It's amusing to read the union wages expert Ingrid Kurz-Scherf almost apologising to the readers of the taz ["alternative" daily] in order to explain why it is now right to support a simple wage demand, although of course it must also be a question of much higher things like »humanisation«.

And in doing this she must also remember that there is still even now a »social question«; a term from the 19th century for the fact that there are class relations.

To put it another way, the unions have moved far away from the social question, through their »humanising and constructive policy«. The »constructive« policy of cuts in working hours was quickly revealed as a modernising-consensus of unions and employers, because this policy was the lever for the flexibility of working hours, the extension of work place opening times, new shift models etc.. This policy is one of the most important reasons why the socalled wage quota - the relationship between employers profits and workers income, perhaps the best indicator of the development of exploitation intensity - deteriorated throughout the 80s: While the workers had to give up a growth in wages in return for shorter working hours, the employers were able to secure their profits by a corresponding increase in work intensity.

Today, the unions follow the same policy through the introduction of new models of work organisation, such as team work, which they sometimes loudly support and sell »all-round exploitation« to their members as the blessing of humanisation. In this situation, where the unions know their responsibility for the success of a wide reaching structural change, they have no alternative but to use once again the wage question to legitimate themselves and the strike as the most effective method for membership recruitment. For they urgently need an improved image in the work place and influence once again, in order to be able to carry through the modernisation idea in the years ahead - together with the shrinking of the welfare state.

A consensus about the coming modernisation is needed right now in the public sector: telecom and the railways are to be privatised. At telecom, the removal of 10.000 jobs already has been announced - the same at Lufthansa [airways]. The administration is to become more effective. Also planned is to change at present age-related wage rises to »performance«-related wages, says the negotiation leader of the public sector employers, Simonis, who sought to improve the reformist image of the SPD in the wage negotiations, with her suggestion to raise the lower income groups' wages stronger.
What are the possibilities of this crisis?

At the beginning of the year, when a steel strike seemed likely, many people saw in it the hope, that the whole social climate could be altered. Reformists saw it above all as a way of erecting a new democratic settlement. Class struggle is for them nothing more than a »battle over the spoils«.

»This year's wage battle, which is now coming to a work dispute in the steel industry, gives the long suppressed and virulent social conflict in West Germany a real, concrete form for wide layers of the population and a legitimate democratic form through the ballot and the active participation of the employees. It can only be a good thing for the public climate in the BRD, when the refugee debate and xenophobia no longer stand in the middle of political and social debate, but instead the democratically decided and formulated demand of wage workers and their unions for justice, not at least in the division of commonly created wealth.« (TAZ, 1.2.1992)

The formulation, that the conflict should take place in »democratic legitimate form« is exactly what lies behind these strikes: The conflict is to remain withhin the framework of the democratic institutions in order that it does not become something else, like revolt und an urge for liberation.

The strikes have thrown up some important questions. For the first time for ages, the workers are seen to be again a social force which can intervene in a bogged-down situation. The idea »strike« is once again part of daily conversation. The sympathy of the population was greater than in the from today blissfully remembered 70s. In this contradictory situation, the unions tried to let out, through the public sector's strikes, the restless public mood and social anger, and at the same time demonstrate to the workers their powerlessness. This has perhaps gone astray: Many people ask the question now again, what we ourselves can do to change all this shit. Although the ÖTV-strike was very much controlled from above, individual groups of workers have - as in the bank strike - gained experience, consciousness of their own position and self-confidence. Important in this was the fact that the workers were very wary of the union's strike manouvres. In this sense it is a positive aspect of the strikes that many workers didn't allow themselves to get carried away.

The unions and the employers / the state come out of this struggle more damaged than the workers. The workers were supposed to get screwed, but at the end they screwed the union. They were able to secure their real wages without too much problems and have given their union a crack on the ear through the ballot box. They can now relax and think about the implications for further struggle.

This is where our hopes lie: in the process of experience, that the workers will want to get away from this wage claim farce. The present normal wave of resignations after a strike and the slagging-off of the union bosses does not yet imply this. One chance is that directly after the ÖTV strike, strikes have now begun in the engineering industry. The union has staged these strikes to counteract their process of erosion. But in the work places they have already agreed to restructuring and modernisation. And there, the discontent with institutions, which only want to subordinate our lives to a greater work discipline, will grow further. The unions can only keep the strikes under control, if they can continue to depoliticize the process of self-organisation at the grass roots through high wage settlements - as took place in recent years especially in the hospital and education sectors.

That the unions are turning to strike once more after years of quiet, is a playing with fire, because it points out to the workers the place where their collective power lies. This is happening in a time in which the unions have become advocates in the work places of restructuring, which means for the workers an intensification of labour. The contradictions will deepen further.

We ourselves can participate in the development of a new and self-conscious power, which is already showing itself.

These are slow and hidden processes, but it is in their nature, that they can very suddenly turn around and become revolt.