German rail strikes - Activism on the wage front but no united resistance against privatisation

Earlier this month the German railways were brought to a halt by a paralysing strike. There is a real mood of militancy among German rail workers, but at the top in the trade unions deals are going ahead that envisage the privatisation of the railway network with a generalised worsening of working conditions, lowering of safety levels and so on.

German rail strikes brought rail transportation to a halt in many areas of the country earlier this month and revealed the enormous frustration and discontent that has accumulated over the past years. The power of the working class was felt when locomotive engineers, signal box workers and others in key positions proved that they could paralyse Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany's still state-owned railway company. In the railway stations most passengers affected by the stoppages that caused long delays and chain reactions for several hours showed sympathy towards the strikers. An opinion poll revealed that 71 per cent of all Germans supported the strikes.

The determination was overwhelming. Wherever union pickets turned up and called upon the railway employees to come out, the response was impressive, as though many workers had been waiting for such a call for a long time. This is not surprising as railway workers have suffered losses in living standards over the past few years.

DB boss Hartmut Mehdorn has been pressing for privatization for a long time and keeps urging politicians to take a final decision to sell up to 49% of DB shares on the stock exchange in an initial public offering (IPO). DB management have done their utmost to squeeze the workforce and create an economic balance sheet with record profits in order to prove that DB is "marketable" and "fit for the stock exchange". Yet cutbacks in staff and investment have made working life even more difficult. For example, they have reduced the staff and rolling stock in the freight section, Railion, to the extent that they cannot even cope with the present increasing demand for rail transportation and have to tell potential customers that they should rather go for road transportation.

All these cuts in necessary expenditure produce nice figures and profits on paper but are counter-productive from a social and environmental point of view. Once private shareholders are on board and demand an even higher return on capital employed, the situation will become worse and worse. The example of Deutsche Telekom (DT) serves as a warning; DT is a higly profitable global player, yet as the recent 11-week-long strike there shows the attacks on the workforce are escalating.

In the run-up to this year's wage round it was clear to the rail union leadership that something had to be done to channel the workers' discontent, let off some steam and prevent an explosion. Thus TRANSNET (the major rail union, DGB affiliated) and GDBA (a smaller, more conservative, traditionally civil servants' union) put forward the demand for a 7 per cent wage increase. This topped IG Metall's demand for a 6.5 per cent rise. Yet after 3 days of short token strikes, TRANSNET and GDBA called off further strike action and entered fresh negotiations with the DB management. On July 9, they announced a "breakthrough" and a new wage deal which includes a flat rise of 600 Euros for all workers for the rest of 2007 and a 4.5% pay rise from January 1, 2008. While this appears to be a high increase, it is clear that with more pressure from below a much better deal would have been possible.

This TRANSNET/GDBA deal, however, has not meant a return to normality as the third railway union, GDL, is still in conflict with the DB management. The GDL is a traditional craft union outside the DGB which organises the majority of DB's locomotive engineers and has set up an international organisation of similar craft unions all over Europe outside the major union federations. They separated themselves from the common wage front with the other two unions in 2002 and are demanding a set of separate contracts for the train drivers and crew on rolling stock. They argue that given the special responsibility at work, locomotive engineers should get a pay rise well above the 4,5% deal - in effect up to 30% increase. Since DB management says No, there is no solution to this conflict in sight.

"We do not want to split the workforce", argued DB personnel manager Margret Suckale. This sounds quite cynical, as every boss would naturally like to rule over a divided workforce, but the thing is that DB management have in effect entered a united front with the TRANSNET and GDBA leadership to support an IPO as quickly as possible. At a special congress of his union last week, TRANSNET leader, Norbert Hansen (a right-wing social democrat), and his apparatus pressurised delegates to endorse the line of "constructive cooperation" with the government and DB management to bring about the parliamentary decision on an IPO as quickly as possible. His major argument was that only by selling up to 49 percent of DB shares, could the unity of DB be safeguarded and a British type rail fragmentation be prevented.

Wolfgang Tiefensee, Minister of Transport in Angela Merkel's cabinet, likewise a right-wing social democrat, told delegates that everything would be fine after the IPO and that DB needed "fresh capital" to become the "number one global player" in the logistics sector. Behind this stands the megalomania of DB Boss Mehdorn and Co. who want to buy companies in the rail, road and air sectors all over the world. Already, they have bought the Dutch and Danish rail cargo companies, the British EWS, the US American Bax Global group and many others. In a liberalised European railway network, there will be increasing competition and clashes between DB and the French SNCF as French unionists told us that SNCF, too, wants to become Europe's number one in the sector. Tiefensee told the delegates that it might be necessary and useful for Deutsche Bahn to take over the railway connection between Moscow and St. Petersburg!

Back to the GDL conflict: against the background of enormous discontent, most locomotive engineers at present regard the GDL as a tool to express their frustration, power, and militancy. GDL leader Manfred Schell is a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). He has raised many expectations and staked all their prestige on this conflict so he cannot easily get out of it without losing face and prestige. He threatens further strikes that could once again paralyse the railways. The GDL's strength is an expression of the disappointment with the lack of militancy displayed by the TRANSNET leadership. Hansen's opportunism has obviously played into the hands of reactionary demagogues like GDL leader Schell. Meanwhile, TRANSNET leaders hope that the DB management will remain hard and break the GDL.

Yet left-wingers must not have any illusions in the GDL since Schell himself is not in principle opposed to privatisation. Like the other rail unions, the GDL, too, has issued statements in favour of rail privatisation. The major difference with the TRANSNET leadership lies in the fact that the GDL would prefer the rail network to remain in public hands, with everything else privatised as in Britain. TRANSNET, however, insists on avoiding fragmentation and keeping DB together and privatising "only" less than half of it. Behind this difference lie the conflicting interests of investor groups. DB boss Mehdorn is reported to be negotiating with Russian Gazprom and Arab oil sheiks to fork out a few billion Euros to buy 25 or 49 per cent of DB shares. On the other hand, German industrialists around the BDI, Germany's CBI, and private railways already operating in Germany, would like to take over bits of the regional transport, rolling stock, maintenance and service companies. DB has been split up into over 200 subsidiaries, thus making a bit-by-bit sell off entirely possible. British rail unions tell us that not a single subsidiary and not a single share should be passed into private hands. This fraternal advice based on the experience of their rail privatisation disaster over the past 12 years, is a book with seven seals as far as the leaders of TRANSNET, GDBA and GDL are concerned.

Railway workers - not only locomotive engineers - do deserve much better wages and working conditions and TRANSNET and GDBA should have increased the pressure instead of sending their members back to work after token strikes. Yet given the fact that the government is determined to get the privatisation bill passed in the Bundestag (German parliament) this coming autumn, the GDL's activism on the wage front also serves to divert the attention away from the real threat and challenge - the need to close ranks and stop the privatisation. It is criminal that all the three union apparatuses do absolutely nothing to warn and mobilise their members on the issue. In TRANSNET, left-wing critics around the rank and file pressure group "Bahn von unten" who have argued against privatisation for years are now scandalously being branded as agents of the GDL and the apparatus has tried to remove critical left-wing members from union positions in a number of cases. Hansen argues that the opponents of privatisation in the end will be responsible for the fragmentation of DB.

GDL's position is not better. They tell their members that given the present shortage of qualified locomotive engineers in Germany (quite a few have sought and found employment in Switzerland, Austria and Luxemburg) they have nothing to fear from privatisation. This is extremely shortsighted. After DB privatisation the dam will burst and a privatised DB may well move to take over Railways in Eastern Europe. Many highly qualified locomotive engineers from the East will then be sacked and try to find jobs in Germany. Already there are reports of Polish and Rumanian train drivers employed by private rail cargo companies in Germany on abysmal terms and conditions - starvation wages, endless overtime work, sleeping on the locomotive etc...

The mood is there for a massive campaign to stop DB privatisation in Germany. When the DGB national committee took a decision against any sort of rail privatisation in March, it was only TRANSNET leader Hansen who said "No" to this resolution and criticised the DGB and other unions for interfering in TRANSNET's internal affairs (!!!). Last month, half a dozen important regions of the SPD voted against rail privatisation. Yet Tiefensee, Minister of Transport, told me last week that he isn't bothered and is certain that the SPD's national congress in October will endorse his line. A public campaign against rail privatisation recently produced a good documentary film on the issues, yet the rail unions and their media haven't even told their members that this film exists.

Wherever the union rank and file are informed, they are overwhelmingly against any sort of dismantling and sell-off. What is needed is a united front of all rail workers, allies in the left parties and other opponents of privatisation to stop this madness. Without the consent of the unions and the SPD rank and file an IPO would be impossible.

Global warming can be combated by preparing for a hot autumn: not a single DB share is for sale! Prevent the sale of the century and fight for a United European Railway System - under public ownership, democratic workers' control and management, run for the benefit of workers, passengers and the environment.