A series of strikes by tens of thousands of metal workers are showing the potential power of the German working class.
From steel giant ThyssenKrupp to luxury car maker Porsche, thousands of workers walked out across 360 companies on Monday. Up to 75,000 have struck so far and the IG Metall union has threatened an all-out strike if bosses don’t meet their demands.
The union is demanding an above-inflation 6 percent pay rise for 3.9 million workers and workers’ right to reduce their weekly working hours from 35 to 28. Because pay would fall unions want a £200 a month pay rise for those looking after parents and children.
With export industries booming and unemployment at an all-time low, unions see this as an opportunity to push for higher wages and better conditions. And bosses are worried that they won’t be able to discipline the workforce.
Heiner Dribbusch from the WSI union think tank explained, “It is no longer the case that there are 100,000 unemployed workers waiting outside factory gates.
“Companies are complaining about the lack of qualified labour in Germany.”
The number of jobs being advertised in the metal industry is higher than official unemployment figures. Around 22 percent of companies are unable to produce to full capacity.
Economic growth, as well as austerity and bosses’ attacks, can fuel workers’ confidence to fight.
German capitalism is supposedly built on a “partnership model” between bosses, unions and government. Brought in during the post-war capitalist boom, this was a deliberate way of maintaining “industrial peace”.
A complex set of collective bargaining agreements—in industries, regions and firms—regulate terms and conditions. Unions jockey for position and often hold “warning strikes” whenever the agreements are up for renewal.
This round of negotiations could be sharper because of underlying problems in German capitalism.
The metal workers’ dispute has brought the battles over the length of the working day to the fore for the first time in over a decade.
Battles over the working day raise the question, “Who gets the profits workers create?” Dribbusch said, “It is obvious that companies are making big profits, share prices are up and so are the salaries for managers.
“So the metal workers’ union is saying, ‘When, if not now’?”
Since before the global crisis of 2007 bosses have tried to squeeze more of workers to keep their profits up, which has hollowed out social partnership.
Bosses’ organisations have given firms opt out memberships since the 1990s. This means they’re not bound by industry-level agreements with unions. Gesamtmetall, the bosses’ organisation fighting IG Metall’s demands, highlights this.
At the beginning of the century all of its 6,252 members were part of collective bargaining agreements with unions. By 2013 just over half of its 6,826 members were in such agreements.
IG Metall is in a potentially powerful position to hurt German capital. Exports industries are booming, but German capitalism is still racked by weaknesses and the government is pushing through austerity.
A breakthrough for metal workers would be important for the whole working class.
IG Metall leaders are keen for a swift resolution to their dispute.
Union leader Jorg Hofmann said that “a brief and strong struggle would perhaps be better for both sides”. “We want to achieve our demands and ensure the production stoppages are manageable for the employers,” he said.
This is partly because union leaders are determined to cling onto social partnership with the bosses.
But it’s also more fundamental. Union leaders fear that workers’ struggle could derail coalition talks between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Labour-type Social Democrats (SPD).
The CDU and SPD agreed a blueprint for further negotiations on Friday. The breakthrough means that, although they are still a long way from forming a coalition, they hope to move to formal talks.
Reiner Hoffmann, DGB union federation leader, said a new coalition would give “a good perspective for Germany and Europe”.
In reality, another “grand coalition” of the CDU and SPD would be a disaster for the left and the working class.
It would make the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) the largest opposition party in parliament. Its election breakthrough marked the first time Nazis have been in the parliament since the end of the Second World War.
The AfD is built on racism against refugees and has been shifting rightwards. Around half of its 92 MPs are Nazis—and fascists are taking over key leadership positions and local party organisations.
Its rise followed a general shift to the right in German society in the aftermath of the refugee crisis.
Refugees marching down Europe’s motorways and a widespread mood of solidarity forced chancellor Angela Merkel to let in one million people. But the right was quick to go on the attack and Merkel responded by pandering to racism.
The AfD also fed off a deep bitterness at the base of society, mainly in the former East Germany. The Die Linke party has been part of regional governments in the poorer east that have pushed through privatisation.
This blunted the left’s ability to put forward an alternative.
The SPD paid heavily for pushing through attacks on working class people, polling just 21 percent at federal elections last September. Reeling from their drubbing, its leaders ruled out going back into coalition with Merkel.
After talks between the CDU and right wing liberal FDP collapsed, they changed their minds in the name of providing stability.
The SPD jumping into bed with the conservatives again will—if unchecked—further the shift rightwards. Merkel plans more austerity and closer integration with the European Union (EU) bosses’ club.
Putting forward a socialist, anti-racist alternative—and working class struggle—can shift the situation to the left.
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