A four-hour strike by Germany’s train drivers at the beginning of July brought large parts of the country’s rail traffic to a standstill. Now the drivers are set for an all-out strike which could cause major disruption to traffic and corporate logistics.
The train drivers are demanding a pay rise of 30 percent – a demand that is backed by the majority of Germans, who view such wage rises as entirely justified for workers with enormous responsibility for crew and passenger safety.
Currently, German train drivers earn around 2,000 euros per month.
The German rail company Deutsche Bahn (DB) has offered rail workers represented by two other railway unions, Transnet and the GDBA, an increase in basic wages of 4.5 percent – far more than they had expected.
Two days after the deal had been struck, it became clear that these two unions had agreed to a special clause in the contract. This stipulated that DB should make no concessions to the GDL drivers’ union.
According to its terms, if management sought a separate agreement with the GDL, the deal struck with Transnet and the GDBA would be automatically nullified.
The low wages and deteriorating working conditions for train drivers and other railway workers are a direct result of preparations by DB to launch itself on the stock market.
Although this next stage in the privatisation process is opposed by many rail workers and a large majority of the population, DB’s executive committee and the German government are determined to press ahead – especially the transport minister, Wolfgang Tiefensee of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
So the fight of the train drivers has direct political implications. It could be the starting point for a broad political mobilisation against the privatisation policies of the German government.
The train drivers’ fight is part of a bigger strike wave in Germany. The number of working days lost through strike action in Germany for the first six months of 2007 is one-and-a-half times higher than the annual average over the last ten years. If protest actions continue at the same rate, this figure will be much higher by the end of the year.
The increasing readiness of German workers to strike shows that broad layers of the working population are no longer prepared to accept an endless stream of attacks on their living standards and social rights – attacks that have continued for over two decades.
An upturn in the German economy – marked by rising profits and huge increases in managers’ salaries – has encouraged workers to demand the return of wages that have been docked in recent years.
This gives us a chance to revive the German trade union movement, which suffered from a sharp drop in membership and political disorientation after the breakdown of its strategy of “social partnership” with the bosses.
But sadly, trade union leadership is not always up to such new tasks – as the example of Germany’s recent telecommunications workers’ strike shows.
Some 96 percent of Deutsche Telekom workers affected by new management plans voted in favour of strike action in May – and their dispute met with broad popular support.
But the leaders of the public sector union Verdi restricted the strike to short-term localised actions, which did no real harm to the company. In the end, Verdi agreed to a deal that corresponded all along the line to an ultimatum laid down by Deutsche Telekom.
The agreement imposed wage cuts of 6.5 percent plus four hours per week of unpaid work on 50,000 workers, and a reduction in income of up to 25 percent on new employees. This was a clear and bitter defeat.
Political turmoil is adding to the strike wave in Germany. The rise of a new force, Die Linke (The Left), is causing political earthquakes in Germany. Die Linke was founded in the middle of June and it is now Germany’s third biggest party, with over 70,000 members.
It registers between 11 and 14 percent support in polls, the third highest rating, and is set to enter regional parliaments in forthcoming elections in the states of Hessen, Hamburg and Thuringia.
In the two weeks following its foundation, Die Linke gained 4,000 new members, mainly in the west of the country and from a trade union background.
These are the kind of people who formed the backbone of the SPD in the 1970s and 1980s. The student wing of Die Linke is also very dynamic, growing from eight groups to 36 in four months.
The new party’s main demands are scrapping the higher retirement age of 67, ending harsh new unemployment laws known as Hartz IV, and withdrawing all German troops from Afghanistan.
There is a great deal of sympathy for these measures among ordinary SPD members.
Two thirds have considered handing in their membership cards in the past two years, and one in ten have thought of switching over to Die Linke. That amounts to some 40,000 people, the core of the SPD in the unions.
Die Linke has organised solidarity with the rail strikers and is set to join the campaign against the privatisation of the railways. If we fight hard, we can stop German neoliberalism in its tracks.
Stefan Bornost is editor of Marx 21, a new socialist magazine in Germany