The Spark

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

German public sector workers on strike

Mar 27, 2006

The German public service workers’ strike against the increase of the work week from 38 to 40 hours has gone on for more than seven weeks. Yet the strike continues – the longest public sector strike in 80 years. It continues despite the willingness of the union to compromise, because the different German state governments refuse to back down from their attacks.

In Hamburg, after three weeks on strike, the union agreed to different work hours for each worker, depending on income, family situation and age. The average is about 39 hours. The union declared the contract was ratified although only 42% voted in favor. Their rules are so undemocratic that a contract can only be rejected if three quarters of the union members say NO!

In the majority of German states and cities, the governments still refuse to bargain. Not only do they want to lengthen the work week, but they also want to eliminate the very principle of a unified agreement for public sector employees. For example, even though a “reform” that went into effect last year changed government employee wages to make them dependent on individual “performance,” as well as on seniority, the German state governments refused the reform, because it would have set one standard for all state governments.

State political leaders, whose powers have recently been reinforced by a “reform” of federalism, want to be able to do whatever they want. They want different collective bargaining agreements in the different states and an increase of inequality between richer states and poorer ones. They want to divide the workers, who will face differing working conditions and increasingly differentiated pay. In Lower Saxony more than a quarter of state workers already put in 40 hours a week.

But the authorities also want to make a show of force. Hartmut Möllring, minister of finance for the state of Lower Saxony, thinks the concessions he wants to impose will act as a “pilot” for the economy in the future. And the bosses’ associations see this strike as an occasion to inflict a defeat not only on the state workers’ union but also on all the unions. They would like to continue dismantling bargaining agreements in every sector that still offer workers some protection.

In this sense, the fight going on concerns all workers, not just those in the public sector. This is particularly the case for the miners, who face a new wave of layoffs. The metal workers’ collective bargaining agreement is also expiring. It is possible miners will strike for wage increases after March 29, the day the official period of “social peace” expires in the metal industry.

The public sector union claims it can continue the movement for another year, thanks to its big strike fund. But it has announced a change in strategy. It will no longer plan unlimited strikes, but rather “limited and flexible” actions. But limited actions mean the unions have fewer ways to make the bosses and their politicians retreat. To make them back off, what’s needed is to extend the strikes to other categories of workers; to show the bosses and their governments that the anger that exists in the working class can explode and go beyond what these governments can control.