Workers want their share of the cake – Hot spring in Germany?

Against the background of the current wage round a new and big strike wave embracing the public sector, the engineering industry and the privatised Deutsche Telekom is possible in Germany this spring.

An impressive national wave of public sector token strikes started earlier in March. Tens of thousands of bus and tram drivers, refuse collectors, dustmen, nursery school teachers, administration clerks, savings banks employees, traffic wardens and others went out on strike for a day in all corners of the country and thus expressed their determination to fight for an increase in real wages as inflation has eaten up the meagre nominal pay increases negotiated over the past decade.

The impact of the strikes was felt as public transport in many cities came to a standstill. Reports from different parts of the country indicate that a mood of sympathy was prevailing amongst most of the commuters affected by the strike. Most of them did not complain about getting to work late or about any other inconvenience.

The trade union ver.di and the other public sector unions are demanding a 6.5 percent wage increase, with a minimum bulk sum of 200 Euros per month. Another demand is a guaranteed job for all young workers at the end of their apprenticeships.

As always, the employers argue that the public budgets have huge deficits and that there is no money to pay for a decent wage rise. Yet workers know that the state has made the rich richer and the poor poorer over the past decades. Whereas there is an accumulated public debt of over 2 trillion Euros, private assets amount to a staggering 7.4 trillion Euros, with the richest 10 per cent holding 4.5 trillion alone. Thus, an increasing number of workers see that there is no need to tighten their belts.

The fact that only a few weeks ago Mr. Christian Wulff, a Christian Democrat, had to resign as President of the Federal Republic following loan scandals and corruption allegations has enraged many workers. After quitting his job, 52 year old Wulff is not going to face a future on the dole or social security benefit as the Merkel government granted him a lavish “gratuity” in the shape of a pension of 199,000 Euro per year for the rest of his days. Thus “Gratuity for all” was the demand on many of the homemade placards that workers held up during the recent strikes and demos.

In the engineering sector, with some 3.6 million workers affected by the wage contracts, IG Metall is also demanding a 6.5% pay rise and a guaranteed job for all apprentices. Another burning issue is the growing casualisation of labour as employers have increasingly resorted to the tool of different forms of temporary work and labour leasing to undermine the relatively good IG Metall contracts. This casualisation is the main basis for the present alleged German “jobs miracle” and makes up a quarter of all jobs nationally. Increasingly, full time workers cannot earn a living wage and have to apply for additional social security benefits.

The union is demanding equal pay and more rights and control for the works councils concerning conditions of employment of contract workers. Casualisation is increasing and there are quite a few big factories, such as the BMW plant in the Eastern city of Leipzig, where only half of the workforce are core employees on decent IG Metall contracts. On the other hand, workers clearly see that the big industrial companies have accumulated record profits in the export boom of the last two years and therefore want a slice of the cake. Whereas some IG Metall leaders are said to be secretly arguing for moderation in the wage round, many workers are saying “enough is enough”. “Even if I should lose my job in the future I will fight for a pay rise now”, a local engineering worker told me recently, adding “We have seen many well paid managers come and go and we know that the money is there.” IG Metall strikes are possible in May.

It remains to be seen if the union leaders feel the pressure from below and do their utmost to mobilise and unify all the forces for the full realisation of the wage demands – or they go for an uneasy compromise rather than extending the strikes as they have done many times in the past.

The potential for a unified wage struggle involving hundreds of thousands of workers in the private and public sectors exists. Such a strike movement could make a mark on German politics and highlight class issues. It is significant that opinion polls indicate an ever increasing popular respect and esteem for trade unions over the last few years.