Berlin. The pressure is on in Germany – pressure against the union movement – in as dirty a campaign as has been seen in a long time.
Chancellor Schroeder, respected in some areas because of his rejection of the Iraq war – has long since been backing down from that position and trying to mend fences with the Bush band. But he has used temporary popularity based on his seeming courage to push an all-out program to tear apart the social net in Germany, a welfare system which, with ups and downs, goes back in history to conservative old Chancellor Bismarck in the 1880′s.
The excuse for cutting unemployment payments, chopping medical and dental care, hitting at the incomes of pensioners and similar plans – cheered on by the right-wing parties who always opposed him otherwise – is the economic catastrophe in Germany, with over four million unemployed – a rate in eastern Germany of nearly 20 percent. Another snake oil remedy is the “tax cut” trick – a very little cut for some middle class groups, a big cut for the very wealthy.
With the leftwing Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) chopped down to two lonely deputies in the Bundestag and full of internal quarrels, the main opposition to the anti-social plans have been the unions, united in the German Union Association (DGB). But while some of them also have a habit of buckling to pressures from above, the two biggest unions had been full of fight. One was the young union called ver.di – not a musicians union but a federation of five public service unions including everything from nurses to garbagemen, from postal and railroad workers to writers. The other, traditionally very militant union is IG Metall – for metal and electrical manufacturing trades and one of the biggest labor unions in the world.
But now IG Metall has been split, at least temporarily, into two opposing groups. The retiring president, Zwickel, has been getting less and less militant with the years, and seemed largelywilling to accept most of the plans of Schroeder and his Social Democratic-Green coalition. But at the last major executive session, a fighting vice-president named Juergen Peters won the best slot for becoming new president in October.
But then a strike was decided on for eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, where, despite all the promises, people are paid less and work longer than their west German colleagues. The strike won higher pay for workers in the steel industry, but failed to win its fight for the 35 hour week achieved some years ago in West Germany (The East German metal workers often work 40 hours, and demanded only a gradual reduction over the next six years. This may sound idyllic to American workers with much longer work weeks – but it must be recalled that there is severe unemployment especially in the East, and this was one way to combat it.
In any case, the big companies decided not only to oppose the demands but to teach labor a lesson. They dragged out negotiations and waged a vicious war in nearly all the media, and then sent in strikebreakers through the strikers’ lines – along paths carefully measured in width in accord with court injunctions. The use of strikebreakers was rare in recent West German labor history and virtually unknown in East Germany. Then the big automakers took their next action: they shut down lines in West German plants because of alleged “lack of parts” from the east. A number of West German leaders took the bait and attacked their union brothers and sisters in the east, also something hitherto unheard of. The strike was ended in a bitter and unusual defeat.
What followed could raise suspicions of some kind of conspiracy theory. Several of the most pliant regional sections of IG Metall have called for a special convention to elect a new leadership – before the regular convention in October. They made clear that they are out for the scalps of Juergen Peters and the main East German strike leader, blaming them for a defeat which was not their fault, since the entire union had agreed to the strike. The media are hunting the auto plants for workers ready to say what is asked for, the employer association is calling for “a quick resolution of the dispute” in a transparently partisan way, and even Schroeder meddled in internal politics of the union by hinting at who should not be elected as leader.
One goal was achieved. There will be an early special convention, probably in August. The outcome is far from clear, but the whole campaign already recalls Margaret Thatcher’s successful conspiracy to break the back of the militant miners’ union in the 1980′s, thus critically weakening the whole labor movement and any opposition to her right-wing course. A sellout in the big metal-workers union with its nearly 2 million members would greatly damage the cause of all working class Germans and their families – and weaken opposition to health and welfare cuts and to the new cordiality between all major parties when it comes to fleecing the people.