The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

“Mega-Strike” over Wages

Apr 17, 2023

This article is translated from the April 14 issue #2853 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

In Germany, March 27 was an exceptional day of strike action. The strikes were mostly related to union negotiations by municipal public service workers. But they went well beyond that.

Workers who were involved included people in garbage collection, public transportation, airports, nurseries, city hospitals, and city offices. So-called warning strikes that conform to the laws regulating collective bargaining happen from time to time among these kinds of workers. But this year, with inflation pushing down wages, many more workers joined in.

From the start of negotiations, the lowest paid categories such as workers in trash collection and regional buses and trains turned on the pressure. But municipalities are deep in debt and are less willing than ever to give anything away. The union known as Ver.di demanded a 10.5% overall pay raise with all workers getting at least $538 more a month. This was a way to emphasize that the lowest paid workers need the raise the most.

It was similar with Deutsche Bahn railway line. There too, janitors and security guards sometimes earn a base salary that is lower than the minimum wage. But the company didn’t want to give in. There are two unions at Deutsche Bahn. The smaller union GDL for conductors has called strikes several times before. But EVG, a bigger union covering the rest of the workers—dispatchers, mechanics, electricians, receptionists, security guards, janitors, salespeople and certain conductors—hasn’t struck for years. EVG even accepted to get practically no increase in the last two years, "out of a sense of responsibility toward a company in difficulty."

After calling several multi-day strikes in 2021, GDL had obtained bonuses of $1,216 or higher. Many railway workers left EVG, and some joined GDL. So EVG was under pressure. Railway workers said: “If you don’t strike now, we will leave this union." For many, finally going on strike seemed as important as winning. EVG demanded a 12% raise with no one getting less than $719. For the first time ever, EVG demanded that flat amount, not just a percent. Percent raises favor higher paid workers. Here too, this was in response to the fact that workers at the bottom of the ladder had mobilized.

So both unions, Ver.di and EVG, agreed to go on strike on March 27 at all transportation companies: regional buses and trains, Deutsche Bahn and airports. The simple fact that locals of two unions were speaking with each other and calling for a joint strike made this a special day, the likes of which we had never seen in Germany. In the past, on occasion two locals at Ver.di whose employees were already on strike might have organized a joint demonstration. But generally the union leaderships have argued in a corporatist way, to make separate demands; they said to avoid the danger that a sector of the economy is “drowned” in the event of a joint strike, and so on. But this time, they cooperated across multiple sectors.

The success was impressive. On March 27 the country really came to a partial halt. In many cities, not a single public bus, metro or streetcar ran. Only buses at private companies. At the airports, with air security and ground staff on strike, no planes took off—not at Frankfurt, not at Munich. At Deutsche Bahn, not a single train on the main lines ran, and almost no regional trains.

Even before the strike began, the media and the political world unleashed torrents against this strike, indignant that “the unions” dare to “paralyze the country” and “strike the economy in the heart.” This met with no success. Strikers rejoiced before the strike, and then felt proud when trains and urban transportation seemed to disappear.

Workers in general, far from finding the demand for $538 for everyone to be too much, began to echo this demand too, saying that considering inflation this is the amount everyone needs. Because strikers anchored this demand for $538 in the public debate—because they dared to demand this much—many employees felt March 27 to be virtually their own strike.

In fact, the media’s refrain attacking this strike “that everyone was doing at the same time,” lecturing workers that it would have been SO much more practical and wise to go about it one after the other—just like their headlines about “mega-strike” and “general strike"—has planted this perspective in many minds. Some workers started saying: "Exactly! That’s what we need: a general strike! We should all strike at the same time!"

This is a new situation in Germany. The idea has not existed for decades. Contract negotiations and the right to strike had been boxed in and locked up. So, an idea has resurfaced that did not exist in people’s minds—or it only existed in books or in other countries. With the success of March 27, the mindset of a number of workers might be changing.