Photo by Marianne Bieler Renewal through strike – this was the title of a highly important conference of left-wing trade unionists in Stuttgart/Germany from 1 to 3 March 2013. Organized by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation and supported by the second big …

 Erneuerung durch Streik
Photo by Marianne Bieler

Renewal through strike – this was the title of a highly important conference of left-wing trade unionists in Stuttgart/Germany from 1 to 3 March 2013. Organized by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation and supported by the second biggest German union ver.di, more than 500 trade unionists came from all over Germany and from nearly all industrial sectors to discuss the challenges of neoliberalism for the labour movement. In this guest post, Marianne Bieler and Markus Peiter provide an overview of the key discussions at this conference.

Friday evening was dedicated to the discussion of a wider European perspective for the labour movement. Nuria Montoya (Head of the CCOO-Section in Barcelona) and Sean Vernell (Member of national executive committee of the UCU Britain) gave very deep and interesting inside views of how to organize a political strike. The Spanish trade unions organized three general strikes within the last 15 month. Last year’s manifestation on 1 May was the biggest ever seen in Spain. This showed alternatives and gave perspectives beyond neoliberal politics. But, as she explained, building a movement is not an easy, quick thing. It requires networking with other social movements, networking in urban spaces and it requires, moreover, a democratic culture of strike assemblies by colleagues organizing their own initiatives within the movement. In Britain, as Sean Vernell explained to his German colleagues, highly restrictive laws are in place to make the organisation of any strike extremely difficult. This caused wide astonishment even amongst German unionists, who are not very used to strike actions, especially because it seemed to them nearly impossible to organize political resistance under these circumstances.

But Vernell showed how even under highly restrictive circumstances it is still possible to organize resistance. In Britain, the movement by students started as a spontaneous act against the cuts of student allowances by the neoliberal coalition government. The small UCU rapidly started to support the movement. This encouraged the support by other bigger unions against cuts and austerity and, in the end, the initial demonstration by students led to a huge public sector strike across the country. On 30 November 2011 more than 2 million people went on strike and protested in the streets against a neoliberal government. Vernell closed: ‘Solidarity is the essence of the union movement’.

The next day, Bernd Riexinger, chairman of the German socialist party “Die Linke”, noted a significant growth in strikes mainly at the local level in Germany (Speech by Bernd Riexinger). He showed that a growing part of German workers is no longer protected by collective bargaining agreements. 60 per cent of German workers in the Western part of Germany and only 40 per cent in the Eastern part are covered by such agreements. The amount of precariously employed workers in today’s Germany is now much higher than in Britain, especially considering employment in areas such as call centres, education, cleaning and the health service. This development was not only the result of massive privatization, but also a consequence of the so called “Agenda 2010” which was put in action by the social democrats in the late 1990s. Hence, there is an increase in workers on temporary and part-time contracts, earning below subsistence wages as their contracts are not guaranteeing a living wage. Nearly 7 million Germans can no longer live on their earnings. Hence, this increase in strikes at the local level. Nevertheless, the level of organized union members in these new areas of employment is much lower than in the old industrial sectors. As a result, trade unions have to organize a strike movement under new circumstances. With very few union members in a company they have to create the biggest possible chaos in order to react to the very special problems of the workers. Strikes across the whole economy or across a particular sector are no longer necessarily the best way forward.

Saturday afternoon provided the participants of the union conference with some very interesting examples of what this means in reality. A union official from Stuttgart explained how to organize resistance under such circumstances in the textile sector. In the main shopping street of Stuttgart, as in other cities across Germany, there are shops of esprit and H+M, whose employee are working on highly flexible contracts. Sometimes they are working on a basis of daily contracts for up to a maximum of five years. Their working hours differ on a weekly basis between ten to 40 hours, guaranteeing the employer a highly flexible workforce on low wages of no more than 7.35 Euro per hour. In its strategy, the union tried to implement a works council, they opposed the low wages and attempted to get rid of the daily contracts. Initially, strikes were countered by management with strike breakers. In response, the workers developed the idea of a more flexible strike strategy. Thus, as soon as management send the strike breakers home, because the employees returned to work, workers started a short-term strike by going out in the pedestrian zone singing strike songs and showing their concerns and slogans on posters to the wider public in order to get support from them. The conclusion: the idea of a flexible strike can only be successful by implementing democratic forms of participation, that is the development and discussion of ideas by all the employees, who have to put these ideas into reality. After nine weeks of industrial action, the employers signed a collective bargaining agreement and almost all employees became union members. The next unionist outlined the strike of public transport workers. On this occasion, it was the service personnel, who went on strike, not the drivers. Tickets were not sold and fare dodgers not prosecuted. In only a few weeks the public transport company lost a million Euro, while the users of public transport could still go to work.

Overall, however, even when using new strike strategies very successfully on a local level, the problem of trade unions to give the right and powerful answers to neoliberal deregulation on a national or even international level remains unsolved. The answer by the participants at the congress was clear: Renewal of the labour movement through strike at the international level, which means especially for German unions to practise solidarity with other European unions and social movements.

Marianne Bieler and Markus Peiter are both teachers at comprehensive schools in Germany and active members of the teachers’ trade union GEW. This post is republished from the Trade unions and global restructuring blog, with the permission of Andreas Bieler, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham. Email him at Andreas.Bieler@nottingham.ac.uk or visit his personal website.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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