Germany: Berlin Transport Workers’ strike – another sign of growing militancy

The Berlin Transport Company (BVG) has been paralysed by a long and militant strike of the drivers and the maintenance and administration workers. After years of concessions and backsliding by the unions the workers have said they have had enough.

For nearly two weeks, from March 5 to 16, all wheels stopped turning in Berlin! No buses, no subway, no tramline was working. And not only the drivers were on strike, also the maintenance and administrative workers of the BVG (Berlin Transport Company) were on the picket lines. A total of nearly 12,000 workers took part in the strike.

What sparked off the protest were the negotiations about a new collective labour agreement between the BVG, owned by the Berlin municipality, and the "ver.di" trade union (the United Service Union). The union was demanding a pay raise of 12%, insisting on a minimum of €250 [US$400, £200] per month before taxes, for all workers. But the company was only prepared to offer 3% for workers who had been taken on after 2005 and nothing for those workers who had been taken prior to that. A bus driver in Berlin taken on after 2005 earns about €1600 per month [US$2500, £1260] before taxes. Even in East Germany, which is still a little cheaper in prices than West Germany, this doesn't amount to much. After some token strikes in February, an all-out strike was inevitable.

Now the drivers are back at work, but the maintenance and administrative workers are still on strike. The effect is that no buses or trains are being repaired and so the number of lines operating will decrease over the next weeks. The union and the company are back round the negotiating table, and the chief negotiators of the union have offered a so-called "corridor" to the company, to discuss possible wage increases of between 3% and 9%, which is already much lower than the original demand.

The workers themselves are quite angry and ready to fight after the relatively modest collective agreements of the last few years and the concessions made to the company and the Berlin council.

In fact this strike has also become a political issue because the local government in Berlin is made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Die Linke (the Left Party). They have done nothing to support the workers and in fact Die Linke, which has supported all kinds of strike action in the rest of Germany, is in fact opposed to the strike in Berlin; at least the local leadership of the party is against the strike. In the rank and file of the party and the youth wing it is another question and the strike has support.

The SPD-Die Linke coalition took control of the local council in Berlin after a long period in which the bourgeois CDU had been in power. The CDU run council had accumulated huge debts. Then it was left to Die Linke to clean up the mess left by the CDU. And as there was a "left" administration the union and the workers throughout the whole of the public service sector in Berlin, including at BVG, made many concessions to the companies. Even a reduction in wages or cuts in labour time without any wage adjustment was accepted, simply in order to avoid privatisations and job losses.

Now, however, the mood throughout the whole of the working class in Germany is changing; the epoch of wage moderation is over. There is a fight spirit throughout the whole of the public service sector and the frequency of strikes, as well as the level of demands, has been increasing over the last few years.

It is true to say that the "breakdown and chaos" in the Berlin transport system predicted by the bourgeois media did not materialise during the strike. The suburban trains, which are operated by Deutsche Bahn, were still operating and many people were travelling by bike or just walking. There was hardly any mood of infuriation or anger towards the striking workers among the people of Berlin. Of course there are always a few people that get very angry, mostly gentlemen in made-to-measure suits with briefcases.

The majority, the working people, that depend on the public transportation system to get to work every day, showed a high level of sympathy towards the striking workers. Many said that they are supported the strike and that "it would be good, if we could also strike at my workplace..." In fact there was a great deal of solidarity from ordinary people, as well as from all kinds of left organisations, bringing coffee and cake to the picket lines, organising social and party events with the striking workers and so on.

The situation in the Berlin transport system confirms the fact, as we reported earlier, that there is a shift to the left taking place in Germany, not only on the political front, as is demonstrated by the increasing votes for the Die Linke in several local elections, but also on the economic front with growing trade union militancy and higher wage demands.

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