Germany: Nationwide strike reveals class and environmental dimensions

Railroad Germany

First published at IMHO Journal.

According to Junge Welt (March 29), around 335,000 employees heeded the joint call by public sector union, Verdi, and the Railways and Transport Union (EVG) for a nationwide warning strike. On March 28, buses and trains stayed largely in the depots for 24 hours, and planes were grounded. The strike hit municipal public transport in seven Federal states, the airports, activities of the Autobahn GmbH [a federal institution responsible for all tasks related to the administration of federal freeways and other federal highways], parts of the municipal ports, the water and shipping administration, as well as the Deutsche Bahn [German Railway Company] with its bus companies and various other railway companies. Long distance rail transport, both passenger and freight, came to a complete standstill.

Although the strike created a hindrance for many people seeking to travel to schools, universities, and workplaces, there was no talk of chaos in the cities or the highways because most people had anticipated the strike events, as Verdi and the EVG announced it four days in advance.

Verdi chairperson Frank Werneke said of participation in the strike: “Really all members who had been called to the warning strike also took part in it,” adding that it was “simply pressure on the boiler because employees are tired of being fobbed off with warm words every day, while working conditions are getting worse and many positions are vacant.”

In the weeks before the March 28 strike, more than 400,000 employees had taken part in warning strikes in various areas of the public service. As to the dimensions of March 28 strike, Werneke stated, “This is the largest participation warning strike for many decades.”

EVG chairman Martin Burkert was also satisfied with the participation in the strike: “More than 30,000 colleagues followed our call,” he said, emphasizing that “In a three-shift operation, that’s an enormous number.” The result was that all long-distance trains and most local trains came to a standstill.

The announcement of the nationwide strike was reason for the capitalists to react as they normally do when working class people stand up for their interests: creating panic and demonizing the workers and their organizations. Thus, Steffen Kampeter, the chief executive of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, intoned before the start of the strike: “Anyone who acts so disproportionately endangers the acceptance of the right to strike. ” The President of the Association of Municipal Employers’ Associations, Karin Welge, warned, “The unions should be careful that they don’t go beyond limits.” Michael Hoppel, the head of the airline association BARIG, to which most German as well as international carriers belong, stated in a two-faced manner that “the disproportionately severely restricted mobility” complicates “national and international traffic flows, the transport of goods, possibly important humanitarian aid deliveries, and social coexistence in general.”

The pundits of the bourgeois press went along with the flow of these statements, imposing rhetorical questions such as, “Now the trade unions are getting their torture tools out of the drawers… whether this was still a warning strike or not much more of an excess?” and “What is to come after that? General strike?”

As to the participation of the workers in the transport and public sectors, a railway worker spoke in clear language: “When 150,000 transport workers go on strike, everything comes to a standstill. In our operations center, almost everyone actually left at four o’clock, despite uncertainty and hardly any experience of a strike. I really didn’t expect that all of our colleagues would take part in the strike. The situation was no different nationwide: 72 percent of all striking EVG members had never stopped work before. But the motivation among the colleagues was and is great!” (JW, March 29). This remark is telling, not only because it refers to a great participation in the strike, but also concerning the remarkable fact that “72 percent of all striking EVG members had never before stopped work.”

Demands of the workers

The demand of the strikers is a wage increase of 650 euros per month for all employees. The German Railway Company (DB), however, is only offering a two-step lump sum payment of 2,500 euros and that for a term of 27 months. That would be 92 euros per month. Moreover, this payment would be just as a tax-free one-off payment and not a sustainable wage increase. Thus, it would not contribute to pension points. And besides the issue of wages, the workers are also demanding better labor conditions.

The demands of the postal workers are no different. The strict subordination of business policy to the interests of shareholders leaves little room for decent salaries at Deutsche Post DHL Group (DP), despite record profits. Accordingly, in three rounds of negotiations with the Verdi services union, the group’s management was not prepared to submit an offer that would compensate for the inflation-related real wage losses of the employees. Verdi had demanded a wage increase of 15 percent over a period of twelve months for the 160,000 postal employees who were bound by collective bargaining agreements. The company’s offer is complicated, but on average it means a nominal salary increase of 9.9 percent over a period of 24 months. The miserable offer of DP contrasts sharply with what DP mentioned not so long before the strikes were starting in March: a new sales record of 94.4 billion euros for the past year, 2022. DP was able to surpass its record from the previous year by 15.5 percent. This stocking up had become possible thanks to regular price increases and a further dismantling of the service – for example, through branch closures and the dismantling of mailboxes. Moreover, there was a new record set for profits: the operating revenue of 8.4 billion euros exceeded that of the previous year by 400 million and was higher than ever before.

The postal workers saw that for the DP capitalists it was “business as usual,” as DP management made it clear once again that the earnings of the record year 2022 should not benefit the employees, but primarily the shareholders. The hefty increase in the dividend shares for last year from EUR 1.35 to EUR 1.80 is now to be followed by a further increase to EUR 1.85. In addition, it was announced that the current share buyback program would be increased by one billion euros, which would also drive up the price of these securities.

Willingness to strike and standard of living

The increased willingness to strike in both the public and private sectors is not surprising given that an enormous wage theft is taking place in Germany. This is taking place in all capitalist countries, creating what we perceive as the phenomenon of growing inequality.

In Germany in 2022, real wages fell for the third time in a row, resulting in increased poverty and rising prices. A report by Junge Welt on March 2 summarizes some of the data: “As the Federal Statistical Office announced [on March 1], the increase in nominal wages by 3.5 percent by no means compensated for the inflation caused in particular by the explosion in energy prices last year. The Wiesbaden statisticians used a rate of inflation of 6.9 percent, which was recently ‘corrected’ significantly downwards. Accordingly, there was a real wage loss of 3.1 percent last year. According to old calculations, the wage theft is likely to be higher – at 4.1 percent.”

The federal institution responsible for the calculation of the consumer price index at the turn of the year had, however, changed this price index. This is rather a dirty trick, because in this way the drastically increased energy costs in 2022 were given less importance. Thus, for the past year, the annual average inflation rate of 9 percent could be reduced by a full percentage point.

The report adds, “In February, however, as in January, prices rose by 8.7 percent year-on-year, according to the Federal Office” and “The development is also being driven in particular by energy prices, which rose by 19.1 percent year-on-year. Food costs increased by a whopping 21.8 percent over the same period.”

The latest inflation monitor of March 15 from the Institute for Macroeconomics and Business Cycle Research of the Hans Böckler Foundation (Institut für Makroökonomie und Konjunkturforschung, IMK), showed that families and people living alone with low incomes experienced the highest inflationary burden in January, each at ten percent. IMK inflation expert Dr. Silke Tober did throw a little bit more light on the causes in this monitor by stating, “The sharp rise in the price of food and household energy is a particular burden for low-income households because the share of these basic necessities in consumer spending is above average there.” And the monitor continues by specifying, “These two components accounted for 7.1% of poorer single people household-specific inflation but was 9.9 percent in February, adding up to 6.6% points for lower-income families. For high-income singles, on the other hand, food and household energy contributed just 2.8 percentage points to an inflation rate of 7.4%.” The monitor points out further, “The problem that households with low to middle incomes also bear higher inflationary burdens is exacerbated by the fact that many have only small financial reserves and poorer people in particular suffer particularly from high inflation. This is because the everyday goods that they mainly buy can hardly be replaced.”

Thus, there is a social imbalance in the increasing inflation burden. Sebastian Dullien, the scientific director of the IMK points in this latest monitor to “The data from the national accounts [which] show that company profits have recently risen more sharply in many economic sectors than overall economic inflation. As a result, profit increases have increasingly become a driver of inflation and are noticeable, for example, in the areas of transport, trade and hospitality, construction and agriculture.” And at the same time, Dullien emphasizes, “Increasing inflationary pressure due to excessive wage settlements has not yet been observed in Germany or in the other large eurozone countries.”

This empirical disclosure from Dullien contradicts the jingle of bourgeois economists and its echo in the mainstream press to the effect that rising wages will result in inflation, along the lines of the so-called “wage-price spiral.”

Dullien’s discussion of the relation between the nature of inflation and the standard of living of working class people confirms what Marx wrote in his “Value, Price and Profit”, to the effect that “A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities” and that “The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.”

If the capital side gets angry, things are obviously going in the right direction

The different preceding strike movements, earlier in March and then the March 28 strike, mainly showed the functioning of the trade unions as what Marx calls “centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital” in the economic sense. Yet we can observe elements in these trade-union-led actions that go beyond the merely economic sphere, especially in the common ground concerning union and climate struggles. We see it for example in the joint strike action by Verdi and the climate protection organization FridaysForFuture (FFF). I refer to actions in which trade union and climate protection activists declared their solidarity in several cities and took to the streets together for better financing and better working conditions in public transport. In Frankfurt am Main, climate activists visited the picket lines of the workers and published a joint statement via Twitter.

Although not insignificant parts of FFF tend towards Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Green Party), a party which actually is in no way trying to achieve real social change, the joint strike actions apparently hit a nerve with the mobilization on the same day. We see this in statements by the above-mentioned Steffen Kampeter, who spoke of “dangerous crossing of borders” by Verdi. We also see it in the words of Stephan Stracke, a CSU member of the Bundestag (CSU: Right wing Christian Democratic party in the state of Bavaria and operating together with the nationwide Christian Democratic Union), who called it “a dangerous mixture of labor disputes with general political demands.”

The spokesman for DB emphasized that the losers in the strike are the people that who move and companies that transport their goods in an environmentally friendly way. Thus, he made it seem as if the climate would be the loser of the strike. This, answered the railway worker quoted above, is complete nonsense. He points to the process already ongoing for some decades in which the railways have been slashing freight and local transport and are focusing everything on CO2 and capital-intensive express train connections. Further, he makes it clear that for a real turnaround in transport a lot has to change. Not only do we need more rail traffic, but less traffic overall. Half of all goods that are currently circulating are only on the move because production is cheaper somewhere else. And with the restructurization of the railways, there are now a lot of empty runs. He concludes that what we need for a real turnaround in transport would be re-nationalization of the entire railway system, indeed of the entire transport sector. Furthermore, in order to be able not only to conduct a political strike for a turnaround in transport, but also to be able to push through a deal in the interests of the workers, we need more democracy in terms of the right to strike.

It will not be simple to achieve an extension of the democratic right to strike in Germany in order to both raise the standard of living of working class people and improve the environment. To list just a few of the barriers:

– In Germany, the trade union leadership is very close to the SPD, a Social Democratic party with a conservative nature and always looking for harmony with capital.

– Under the leadership of Olaf Scholz as SPD Federal Chancellor the SPD tolerates a federal transport minister, Volker Wissing, who is a member of the Free Democratic Party, a party well-disposed towards the side of capital. This means that they had to “tolerate” Wissing’s reiteration of his call for a faster expansion of motorways on the very Friday before the March 28 strike. According to the traffic projection he presented in Berlin on the same day, road freight traffic will increase by 54% by 2051 as compared to 2019 levels. Moreover, as State Secretary Michael Theurer explained in a television report. Wissing’s department wants to postpone the expansion of the rail network necessary to achieve the climate protection goals within 40 years.

-The SPD, through Scholz, has joined in the delusion of the NATO hysteria that is pervading the whole Western world to invest an extra 100 billion euros (!) in the German Army.

– This investment is in sharp contrast with the need to end child poverty and the needs in health services and is a goldmine for the weapons industry.

– The actual lack of leftist representation at the federal level due to the internal conflicts in the Left Party (Die Linke).

Thus, the German unions are still far away from “using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system” (Marx).

The German working class and their allies will need all their creativity and to develop all their powers, both to defend their standard of living and to fight for a livable environment. The March 28 warning strike could just be the beginning of that process.

Karel Ludenhoff is an Amsterdam-based labor activist and a writer on Marx’s critique of political economy whose essays have appeared in Logos and other journals.