Labor Organizing


Mueller is the top organizer for the German union at IG Metall’s
campaign among high-tech workers, including those at the Siemens
Electrical Corporation. 


We’re in Nuremberg, with 15,000 union
members who marched from 3 different points in the city to protest
the policies of the German government and its prime minister, Gerhard
Schroeder. What brought so many people into the streets here? 

MUELLER: In Germany right now the so-called welfare state is being
destroyed. It started a long time ago with minor cuts and now the
Red Green government headed by Schroeder is starting to do real
damage, with big cuts. That’s the reason why 15–20,000
people are here in Nuremberg and similar numbers in 15 other cities.
All over Germany today there are demonstrations and we expect that
over 200,000 people will participate. 

a dramatic demonstration of opposition. What’s the source of
the anger against Schroeder? 

was elected by workers, not by management, and he won by campaigning
on two issues. First, he was against the U.S. war in Iraq. Second,
he promised to secure the welfare state, especially for the lower-paid
people in this country. Now he is betraying all these promises.
People in the unions, in his Social Democratic Party, now think
he’s a liar. Schroeder advocates the same reforms Maggie Thatcher
imposed 15 to 20 years ago in the UK. The cynical part of it is
that in Germany only a Social-Democratic Chancellor could propose
these deep cuts.

If I could
describe the scene here, thousands and thousands of workers are
holding red flags and banners with the signatures of different unions
on them. Most are carrying pre-printed banners and flags, but there
are also a lot of hand-lettered signs that are particularly angry
and sharp in the way they talk about Schroeder. What are these homegrown


is the first time I’ve seen signs made by the people. They
describe the deep sentiment people have. On one the abbreviation
of the Social Democratic Party, which in German is SPD, has been
given another meaning: Social Plunder, or Robbery, Party. Another
placard talks about the cuts Schroeder is proposing to the benefit
relatives get when someone in the family dies. Some banners are
demanding that the politicians who propose cuts in pensions, and
the university academics who support them, get the same cuts. Right
now, after eight years of service, a member of federal or provincial
parliament qualifies for a pension of about 5,000-7,000 Euros per
month. But after 35 years at a normal job, you get 1,100 Euros if
you’re a man. A woman gets even less, about 600 or 500 Euros
per month. 

specifically is Gerhard Schroeder proposing?


are three main issues. First, in Germany, when companies lay off
workers, they have to select people with fewer years of service—younger
people and people who don’t have to care for relatives and
children. Second, in Germany, after ten years of paying into unemployment
insurance, which is part of the social security system, you get
up to 32 months of jobless payments. Of course that payment is not
a lot, but you can still survive on it. Now they want to cut it
from 32 months to 12 months maximum. 

they want to cut the health care benefits you get when you’re
sick for more than six weeks. In Germany, by law, the employer has
to pay for the first six weeks when you are ill. After six weeks,
the social security health care system pays up to 80 percent of
your former salary. There’s no limit on the length of time.
If you are sick for two years, then the health care system pays
for two years. Now they want each person to buy private insurance
for this situation. But German workers have been paying into the
fund for this benefit for many years—1 percent of their salary
each month. This proposal is robbery of the healthcare system we’ve
already paid for. 

promises that with these reforms there will be more jobs. But experience
shows there is no relation between cuts in social security and higher
employment. On the contrary, we expect that all workers will be
forced to save money to cover these risks, which will cut consumer
spending. In Germany it’s already at a very low level and is
declining every year. These reforms will deepen the economic recession
we’re already in. 

is the unemployment rate in Germany right now?


official jobless rate is about 8 percent, but those percentages
are not really meaningful. In some areas, like Munich, the employment
situation is still relatively good. In other areas, like Nuremberg,
the jobless rate is more than double. Nuremberg was a big industrial
town until a few years ago, when many factories closed. In eastern
Germany the jobless rate is 25 to 40 percent. They ruined the old
industrial system of the former German Democratic Republic and there
is no expectation of creating any new jobs for people living there. 

German labor system is more complicated than the U.S. and has a
parallel system of works councils, elected by workers, which have
the right to negotiate over many issues with employers. There are
also unions that have formal membership in the same way U.S. unions
do and that negotiate over another set of issues. What is the percentage
of German workers who belong to unions and how does that translate
into the political strength of German unions?


now has a unionization rate of about 28 percent, but it’s declining.
A lot of our members are older workers, especially in the private
sector. We have similar problems, on a much smaller scale, as unions
do in the U.S. The difference is that, until now, German unions
have been an accepted and entrenched part of the political system.
We’ve had a culture of cooperation between management and unions.
Of course, we’ve had conflicts and fights, but also cooperation
and consensus. Our Social Democratic governments, up to now, have
heard the voice of the unions. We’ve had a lot of union members
within the ranks of those governments, including members of parliament. 

the Social Democratic Party (and Schroeder) is cutting the ties
between unions and government. We have no more political clout in
the way we did before. But I think this process, although painful,
has also helped us in the longer run. As unions, we have to be on
our own. We can’t survive forever in cohabitation with the
Social Democratic Party. What’s happening to us is similar
to what’s happened between unions and Democrats in the U.S.
A lot of my colleagues, a lot of organizers, are realizing that
the old type of social democratic politics doesn’t work anymore. 

It sounds as though Schroeder’s attitude is similar to that
of politicians in the U.S. who essentially say to unions: “I
don’t really have to listen to you because there’s really
nowhere else for you to go; there’s no other party you can
vote for, so it’s either me or no one.” 

the same. Schroeder is pressing unions very hard because we have
no other political ally. Now, we are well advised to think of our
own strengths and how to improve on them, to develop our own think
tanks, to develop our own ideas. 

you see what’s happening here as part of something bigger? 

continental Europe and the UK, this is part of a larger phenomenon.
Unions have to lose their tight relationships with the Social Democratic
Party. That’s happened in Italy, that’s happening in France,
hopefully that’s happened in the UK, too. Social democratic
parties are going “mainstream.” They are doing more or
less the same things right-wing governments do—the same business
agenda. The main interest of the leaders of our Social Democratic
Party is to be in charge, to get government jobs. If they have to
get government jobs with the support of German management, they
will do it. German unions really need to understand this big change
in the political landscape. 

kinds of activities were you able to carry out in the workplace
that allowed you to convince so many people to come out here? 

basic issue for mobilizing is to do it on the workplace level. Especially
in the car and electronics industry, we have very a very good system
of shop stewards. They spread the “gospel” of this meeting. 

the German system you have two pillars of worker representation.
One is the union, not a company union, but an industry-wide union.
The other is the works council, which is stipulated by law. The
members of these works councils are elected. There’s no stipulation
that they have to be union members, but most are, and at the shop-floor
level the unions and work councils go in the same direction. 

Germany it is also stipulated by law that worker’s assemblies
of the whole factory must be held four times a year. Participation
depends on the topics and the actual situation of the company, but,
on average, 20 to 60 percent of all workers and white-collared employees
come. Normally, the works council chairperson reports about their
work, union representatives give a report on union activities within
the company or industry, and a representative of management talks
about the situation of the plant and the business. In IG Metall,
we use the worker’s assemblies to promote discussion about
the Schroeder agenda—what’s right and wrong about it.
Of course, we also call for participation at the rallies. 

were able to get up in front of management, criticize the Schroe-
der agenda, and tell people to come to a rally? 

is a very good part of German labor law. As unions we can use these
legally-stipulated assemblies for promoting union issues and even
to criticize management decisions in front of management. We have
an official and legal way to come into each company, if we have
at least one member. That’s the minimum level. If we have one
member, we can go onto the shop floor, urge people to join the union,
and so on. I know this is very different from the U.S., where you
have to show 50 percent support, fight union-busters in elections,
politick to get card- check agreements, and so on. 

we have only one member, we can act as a union within a company.
Of course, management is not very happy about it and, if Schroeder
succeeds with these reforms he’s proposing, later on they will
also go after these other rights. 

are a lot of differences between the labor situation in the U.S.
and in Germany. But as unions, we are facing similar problems—in
Germany, the U.S., the UK, France, and everywhere. The bosses are
on the offensive. There’s an anti-union backlash everywhere
and the only way unions can survive is to organize their base. This
means we have to develop unionism from the grassroots level. We
have to bring our own issues into the political debate.

David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer.