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The ‘partnership’ that holds back workers’ struggle in Germany is starting to fall apart

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Issue 2463
Striking public service workers in Frankfurt in May
Striking public service workers in Frankfurt in May (Pic: Jonas Priester on Flickr)

The vote against austerity measures in the Greek referendum sent shockwaves through the ruling classes right across Europe.

It showed on the faces of German chancellor Angela Merkel, finance minister Wolfgang Schauble and European Parliament president Martin Schulz. 

They’ve pushed Greece into austerity and misery. 

Germany’s government is piling the pressure onto Greece—and a vicious media campaign blames Greeks for wasting German taxpayers’ money.

We had a fantastic Blockupy demonstration with 25,000 people protesting outside the European Central Bank (ECB) in March.

But the resistance to austerity politics is much too weak in Germany. And part of the problem lies with the Labour-type Social Democratic Party (SDP) joining in the anti-Greek chorus.

Its leader Sigmar Gabriel is economics minister as part of a broad coalition with Merkel’s Tories.

He’s currently trying to get industrial trade unions together with bosses for a new deal to strengthen Germany’s position in world markets. 

This “social partnership” between unions, bosses and the government are what German capitalism is supposedly built on.

But while German capital is in a relatively strong position, it is built on weak foundations.


And workers’ struggles have erupted in those sectors—especially the public sector—that face cuts and worsening conditions. The number of strikes in the first half of this year was three times as high as in the whole of 2014.

Everything was triggered by train drivers and conductors who went on the offensive with a successful strike in May. This powerful group of just 34,000 workers brought the railways to a standstill—and cost the bosses an estimated £70 million a week. 

The dispute, over pay and conditions, points to broader issues. Deutsche Bahn, the state-owned railway operator, is being prepared for privatisation. This led to attacks on workers as rail bosses tried to cut costs. 

Workers’ wages have been suppressed for the last decade. There have also been serious attacks on welfare and the pension age. Labour market reforms mean that one in three workers are now in precarious jobs.

This has put a strain on the “social partnership”—and not just for the train drivers. 

Workers in Berlin’s largest hospital, the Charite, struck for two days in May demanding better patient-staff ratios. This means that the industrial unrest can open up political questions about the health service and education. 

Last month 31,000 postal workers struck against attacks bound up with the privatisation drive. 

The strikes are by well organised groups of workers and winning concessions can give them confidence. But the trade union bureaucracy can still do a deal with the bosses.

That’s what happened with the postal workers. 

We have difficulties in developing the broader struggle and solidarity with workers across Europe.

We need serious victories for this to break into the wider working class. For us, this means continuing to build on the strikes—and challenging the social democrats’ hegemony in the trade unions.

It also means practicing active solidarity. I met the Piraeus port workers’ union in Greece and they told me they would mobilise against any new memorandum. 

One of the trade unionists there said she’d been in Hamburg, where port workers are facing the same threats of privatisation as in Piraeus. 

We can build on that to show that there’s a left wing answer in Europe.

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