Crisis opens up in IG Metall after the defeat in the East German strike for the 35 hour week

Unprecedented attacks on so-called "old fashioned" unions and "stubborn" and "hardline" union officials who allegedly are out to sabotage the "modernisation" and "flexibilisation" of the economy, have been stirred up by Germany's mass media in recent months. IG Metall, the world's biggest industrial union with a membership of 2.5 million, has been passing through a major crisis this summer. Unprecedented attacks on so-called "old fashioned" unions and "stubborn" and "hardline" union officials who allegedly are out to sabotage the "modernisation" and "flexibilisation" of the economy, have been stirred up by Germany’s mass media in recent months as the ruling class and the Schröder administration work hand in hand to restore rates of profits, reduce labour costs and dismantle the welfare state. Germany's IG Metall, the world's biggest industrial union with a membership of 2.5 million, has been passing through a major crisis this summer.

East Germany is still an area where wages are below, and working hours are above, Western levels. Therefore pressure had been building up in the East German engineering and steel industries to go for the 35-hour week, a demand which had been fought for in these industries in the West of the country in the 1980s and were finally achieved in the 1990s.

This latest East German strike for the introduction of the 35-hour week lasted for one month and ended with a defeat as the IG Metall leadership called off the strike without even gaining at least some minor concessions from the bosses. The strike was openly criticised, not only by the bourgeois and their media and politicians, but also by the union right wing as well as the German Blairites around the Schröder government who distanced themselves from the striking workers. Leading union representatives from the motorcar industry in the West openly deplored the fact that the strike had begun to bite and had brought the assembly lines at the BMW and other factories to a halt and that this was "not in the interest of our company".

This unholy alliance also tried to push the union to the right and bring down Jürgen Peters, the union's deputy chairman who had been nominated by the national committee to stand for the chairmanship at the forthcoming congress. Klaus Zwickel, who had been the union's number one for the last ten years and was going to retire in October anyway, as well as the media and Schröderites had favoured another candidate for the chair: Berthold Huber, who has been presented as a "modern reformer" as against the "hardline faction" around Jürgen Peters. While Peters is nowhere near to being the left wing hardliner he is portrayed as, Huber in fact stands a bit closer to the Schröder-Blairite "modernisers".

When his attempt to remove Peters failed, Klaus Zwickel, whose term would have expired in October, declared his immediate resignation in July.

A special IG Metall congress in late August elected a new leadership and discussed the present crisis. After weeks of heated controversy, the two wings in the union apparatus represented respectively by Peters and Huber agreed on a ceasefire and made a deal which was ratified by the congress. However, only two thirds of the delegates voted for the "dream ticket" of Peters in the chair and Huber as his deputy. Behind the scenes, the "gentlemen’s agreement" that had been reached involved Peters, aged 59, retiring in four years time so that Huber could take over the chairmanship. While Peters has voiced strong criticism of the measures passed by the Schröder government (to further dismantle the welfare state) and has also announced further union protests this autumn, Huber's moderate "reformers" are said to hold 5 out of 7 seats on the full time union executive committee. Reflecting this compromise position, in a press conference Peters made it clear that he was in favour of protest demonstrations, but would not support political strikes against Schröder's policies.

The only "unofficial" left wing rank and file candidate for the 7-member full time executive was Klaus Ernst who did not get elected, but nevertheless topped up 245 out of 585 votes (that is 42%). This is an expression of the fact that a sizeable minority of delegates favoured a more militant union line. As a local union leader in Schweinfurt (Bavaria), Klaus Ernst had organised political strikes in local engineering factories against Schröder's recent "Agenda 2010" which includes all out attacks on the welfare state and above all on the unemployed, the sick and the poor. He received a big applause at the congress when he strongly criticised the top leadership of the union federation, the DGB, who had called off and sabotaged any further union protest against Schröder’s Blairite policy last May.

The union congress will be reconvened in October in Hanover when delegates will have several days to further debate the union strategy for the coming period and take decisions on the resolutions tabled.

These developments show clearly that something is moving inside the German trade unions. It is still in its early stages, but the behaviour of the union leaders is having an effect on the ranks who are becoming more critical, and the cal for more militant action is clearly getting stronger.

In order to learn more about the background and the thoughts of left wing rank and file activists, Hans-Gerd Öfinger of Der Funke interviewed Alfred Matejka. Alfred is a long standing union activist and the chairman of the factory council/convener at the Federal Mogul plant in Wiesbaden where some 2100 men and women are employed. Federal Mogul is a US multinational company, and the Wiesbaden plant which was bought up by the Americans in the early 1990s is a major and high quality manufacturer of bearings, bushings, washers, sputter bearings, and lead-free overlays for the motorcar industry.


In order to learn more about the background and the thoughts of left wing rank and file activists, Hans-Gerd Öfinger of Der Funke interviewed Alfred Matejka. Alfred is a long standing union activist and the chairman of the factory council/convener at the Federal Mogul plant in Wiesbaden where some 2100 men and women are employed. Federal Mogul is a US multinational company, and the Wiesbaden plant which was bought up by the Americans in the early 1990s is a major and high quality manufacturer of bearings, bushings, washers, sputter bearings, and lead-free overlays for the motorcar industry.

How did the defeat in the strike for the 35-hour week come about?

The struggle for the 35-hour week in the East was lost in the first round. My major criticism is that it was absolutely wrong to imagine that this struggle should be exclusively confined to the East. The union should have had a strategy to involve the members in the West, too, and take up other issues such as wages and conditions to ensure a broad mobilisation for the strike.


Alfred Matejka

Here in the West, the first steps towards the introduction of the 35-hour week were only achieved as the result of a strike in 1984 that lasted for more than six weeks. When the recent strike developed in the East, we in the West were supposed to be mere lookers-on. However, the history of the 1980s and of trade unionism in general demonstrates that the question of the reduction in working hours without loss of pay is always a serious trial of strength. And from a union point of view, these questions cannot be solved just in two union districts in the East alone.

In early June, the successful strike in the East German steel industry enforced the signing of a contract for the gradual introduction of the 35-hour week for some 9000 workers in the East German steel industry by the year 2009. This union success served as a warning to the employers in the East German engineering sector. It became absolutely clear that the engineering employers, especially in Saxony, were hell-bent on preventing any compromise with IG Metall. Only a national mobilisation and backing could have ensured a union victory.

There has been an unprecedented avalanche of propaganda against the idea of a reduction in working hours in the German media this summer.

A major aim in the reduction of working hours is the creation of new jobs in order to get unemployed workers off the dole queue and back into production. It is the job of shop stewards and works council members to make sure that the agreed reduction in working time is not compensated by overtime work. On the basis of the agreed reduction in the working hours, 200 unemployed workers have found new jobs in our factory alone.

The struggle for a reduction in the working week in the East was also a struggle concerning the interests of Western workers. The fact that many industrialists and politicians have demanded a return to the 40-hour week in the West should serve as a warning.

Once again, IG Metall was targeted by a massive propaganda campaign which claimed that strikes jeopardize jobs and provoke a shifting of production towards cheap labor countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

Many U.S. managers do not even know where East Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic lie. Any strategic decision in favour of investing in a country with cheap labour is made on a long-term basis and irrespective of the agreed working hours. In our factory the 35-hour week has been in effect for many years, yet on the basis of high productivity, a highly qualified workforce and an excellent infrastructure and reasonable shift patterns this factory is highly "competitive".

Trade union activists internationally are wondering: what is this conflict in the IG Metall about? Where is the union going?

The defeat in East Germany has triggered off a debate in and around IG Metall. Chancellor Schröder, who is the representative of the motorcar industry, has imposed his will – or rather the will of Germany's motorcar industry – upon his party, the SPD. Now Schröder and the ruling class want the IG Metall to follow the same line. If "reform" or "modernisation" means subordination and adaptation to the interests of big business and the chancellor's line, the IG Metall would end up rather as a petitioner and not as a militant union. So the choice is clear.

In recent weeks, the media have interviewed many works council chairmen and conveners from big motorcar companies as "spokesmen of the rank and file". Most of them spoke against Jürgen Peters as the nominated union chairman and against the strike in the East.

Some of them seem to have become a bit self-conceited after so much media coverage. And some of them were strongly critical of the fact that the strike in the East had begun to have the effect of paralysing the assembly lines of Western car factories, as there was a shortage of components so that their workers had to be sent home. I wonder why they are not capable of explaining the issues to their workers when the strike begins to bite?

To put the question bluntly: we have to ask ourselves whether these works council members are still a representative mouthpiece of that factory workforce that achieved the reduction in working hours back in 1984 against the bosses´ will. Or have they become a mouthpiece of "their own" management? The idea has been raised that some of these works council chairmen should stand for the union executive as they are deemed to be "closer to the rank and file". Let me ask you a question: What should an ordinary skilled engineering worker think about a works council member who started his career long ago as an ordinary worker and is now using a free of charge 911 Porsche as a company car and is enjoying a monthly income as a works council chairman of some 8,000 to 10,000 Euros which is by far beyond any agreed rate of income for skilled workers or employees? All I can say is: "Social being determines consciousness".

How do union activists in Western Federal Mogul factories view the strike in the Federal Mogul factory in Dresden, East Germany? We have seen media reports about consistent and well planned scabbing and even the costly use of helicopters by the management to undermine the strike there. There were even reports of thugs with pitbull terriers being hired by the managers to intimidate the pickets.

A struggle for the reduction in the working hours always implies a clash between big business and labour. The local management was well prepared for this clash, but the workers and the local IG Metall were not prepared to the same extent. This is not a personal reproach or criticism of anybody but it has to do with the fact that our brothers and sisters in Dresden do not have the same experience that we have accumulated in the West. On top of this, there was much more brutality and intimidation displayed, and in view of the massive propaganda by management and the media the local works council fought a hard battle. The decisive factor in any strike is the struggle to raise the consciousness and determination of the workers, and of course the capitalists will try to do anything to confuse and demoralise the strikers. Threats to shift production abroad and the obsequiousness on the part of some workers, which still lingers from the old days prior to 1989, have made this defeat possible. Some colleagues in Dresden told me that former top cadres of the "Communist" SED regime in the former DDR now fully collaborate with the management and representatives of U.S. shareholders, whereas workers who had refused to join the "Communist Party" prior to 1989 now joined the picket line at the factory gate.

Why is it that Jürgen Peters is supposed to be the "scapegoat" for the defeat in the East and why has he become a major target of the media?

It should not come as a surprise to us that industrialists, politicians, and their media are campaigning against us. What else should we expect? The ruling ideas of an epoch are always the ideas of the ruling class. The media would like to have an obedient collaborator at the top of IG Metall. But we need a leader who is not drowned in the sea of "social partnership". And we need a stronger influence of more militant activists at all levels.

Big business would have preferred Huber in the IG Metall chair because Peters sometimes uses Marxist phraseology. This attack has been repelled. Zwickel has resigned after he had lost his influence in the apparatus. But this does not mean that the problems and alarming trends in our union have been overcome.