Where is the European Labor Movement?

In March the European Union (EU) celebrated its 50th anniversary. The signing
of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 served as the inspiration for the end of
a war-torn divided Europe and the beginning of political and economic unity
for a new Europe. The birthday took place in Berlin, the post-unification
capital city of Germany whose government has assumed the rotating presidency
of the EU for the next six months. Angela Merkel, the first woman chancellor
of Germany and a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said “Europe
has reached more in 50 years than we Europeans could have ever wished.”
Her motto for Germany’s EU presidency: “succeeding together.” 

Meanwhile, a second notable event succeeded in bringing together organized
labor in the European Union when trade unions in four EU nations—Spain,
Germany, England, and France— stopped the production of Europe’s largest
plane maker Airbus, a rare example of European cross-border unionism. 

The Airbus labor actions provide a window on European power politics. In
late February Airbus announced the elimination of 10,000 jobs, including
the closure and sale of plants. Airbus management, which employs 57,000
workers across Europe, coined the term “Power 8” for its restructuring
program, a charmingly deceptive label for widespread layoffs and out- sourcing.
Airbus seeks to slash 4,300 jobs in France and 3,700 positions in Germany.
The plane maker is also targeting 1,250 jobs in England while Spain will
see 400 job cuts. 

The EU political class interprets the Power 8 program as a necessary element
of a competitive neo- liberal rescue measure. Merkel, the CDU chancellor,
said, “At first sight the principle of fair distribution appears to have
been respected.” Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, reacted positively
to the Power 8 plan while outgoing French President Jacques Chirac accepted
it, but said the closure of plants must “occur in a fair social dialogue.”
Chirac will be succeeded by the conservative Sarkozy who, following a meeting
with French Airbus trade unionists, said he does not feel “bound to the
Power 8 plan.” 

Work stoppages promptly followed the Airbus presentation of its Power 8
program. On February 28, and running into early March, 4,850 German and
4,300 French workers participated in wildcat and political strikes. German
workers, who are not legally permitted to engage in political strikes,
nonetheless struck three German plants. A political strike aims to influence
a change in the behavior of the government, whereas an economic strike
seeks to alter the employer’s conduct, in the sphere of labor negotiations.
The Airbus conflict is turning into a complex interface between political
and economic strikes, largely because Airbus is an amalgamation of public
and private ownership. The French government, for example, maintains a
15 percent share of Airbus ownership. The German auto manufacturer Daimler-Chrysler,
as well as a number of German regional states, also have sizeable shares
in the company. Airbus is run by a French-German co-chief executive structure
and symbolizes a kind of crowning achievement of EU business class economic

An aim of Airbus, which was founded in 1970, was to compete with the U.S.-based
Boeing Corporation, the world’s top selling manufacturer of passenger planes.
The parent corporation of Airbus is the European Aeronautic Defense & Space
Co. (EADS). Both Boeing and EADS produce large commercial planes, but are
also leaders in the mushrooming military industrial complex. EADS’s plane
division is booming economically, which helps explain why Michael Eilers,
the IG Metall union chairperson of the works council in the Nordenham plant
in northern Germany, deemed the plan to sell factories “unacceptable.”
According to Eilers, Airbus “is filled with work orders and the prognosis
looks very good” for the economic viability of the corporation. Airbus,
whose main headquarters is located in Toulouse, France, where 11,500 workers
are based, has 16 plants across Europe. In addition to the Nordenham plant,
which manufactures fuselage parts, Airbus is targeting two other plants
in Germany for sale, a classic expression of outsourcing with a view toward
slashing union wages and benefits. 

Workers in Laupheim, in the southern German state of Baden- Württemberg,
are “shocked and frustrated” about the Power 8 plan, according to the IG
Metall union representative Michael Braun, who also noted they are showing
a “willingness to fight.” The 1,200 union members in Laupheim who produce
and design the cabin and cargo components, have shifted, following the
wildcat strike, to an in-plant work-to-rule strategy. Braun said that workers
are refusing to accept overtime work and special shift assignments. “The
protest within the plant can be felt,” said Braun. 

IG Metall is Germany’s largest industrial union and dominates such sectors
as auto, electronics and metal work. The union is arguably the most powerful
industrial union in the advanced capitalist world and the pattern setter
for collective bargaining negotiations in Germany. IG Metall—mirroring
industrial unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the U.S.—has, however,
suffered massive membership losses and a deterioration of organizational
and strike power. In 1992, following the unification of the former German
Democratic Republic (GDR) with the Federal Republic, IG Metall absorbed
900,000 new east German workers, and increased its membership base to 3.6
million members. However, the current membership has plummeted to 2,376,000
million members and the union recently experienced its first strike loss
since 1954. In 2003 east German workers (in the former GDR federal states)
sought to reduce their work week from 38 to 35 hours thereby standardizing
their work hours with those of west German trade unionists. The strike
affected the production of Volkswagen and BMW autos in the world’s leading
export nation. The lack of sympathy strikes in the west German IG Metall
plants, coupled with a woefully ineffectual pressure point campaign strategy
in the east to mobilize union members and public opinion, turned a winnable
strike into a humiliating flop. 

That a single German union represents practically all Airbus employees
contributes to its bargaining and strike power, in contrast to France where
five separate French trade unions represent Airbus employees. The coordinated
IG Metall work-to-rule action is affecting production. Martin Schindler,
a union representative for the Nordenham plant, reports that, “More is
being discussed than produced” on the factory floor. Managers have been
complaining about the work-to-rule action and that members are refusing
overtime work. According to Schindler, “displeasure is widespread among
the workers.” 

The third plant targeted by Airbus for outsourcing is Varel, which is located
like its sister plant Nordenham, and produces fuselage parts. Hartmut Tammen-Henke,
the IG Metall representative responsible for Varel, said that the 1,350
members are “very much in a fighting mode.” He said in an interview that
the members “fear a sale” of the plant because of the loss of jobs and
“collectively bargained conditions.” An astonishing 35 percent of the workforce
in the seven German Airbus plants is already employed by subcontractors
and temporary employment agencies. Airbus also employs “foreign workers”
who are treated as second-class workers. 

A form of economic chauvinism blocked the attempt on March 16 to build
a Europe-wide union demonstration in Brussels, Belgium and the protest
against Airbus was relegated to the national level. When questioned about
the role of nationalism, IG Metall representative Braun remarked that “[Nationalism]
has not entirely gone away” among German workers. What prompted the cancellation
of the rally, however, was a nationalistic flyer that the French union
CFE- CGC disseminated. The flyer asserted the Power 8 restructuring plan
is a “bonus for the incompetence” of the German plants. The CFE-CGC wrote:
“Who is responsible for the delays by the A380: those who receive a third
of the production line for the A320 plane.” The full production of the
A320, according to the Power 8 plan, will be shifted to the German plant
in Hamburg. 

The Hamburg IG Metall council chair Horst Niehus charged the CFE-CGC with
encouraging “populism” and “nationalism,” according to a report in the
French newspaper Liberation. Julien Talavan, a union representative from
the largest French Airbus union Force Ouvriere (FO), said “We are prepared
to block the assembly of the aircrafts.” The FO is insisting on retaining
the work in Toulouse and thereby preventing the transfer of the A320 plane
work to Hamburg. 

The emotional, nationalistic language and desire for local promotion is
not limited to France. German protests following the employer’s Power 8
announcement resulted in such slogans as “Airbus belongs to Bremen” and
“Airbus belongs to Hamburg.” The germ of German worker chauvinism with
respect to the Airbus conflict could be found as early as May 2006. A bizarre
group under the name of “Die Freien” secured 30 percent of the votes in
a union election in the Hamburg plant, reported the anti- nationalistic
left German weekly Jungle World. Die Freien warned of “the danger that
retiring German senior management could be replaced with French management
representatives.” Their program highlights their vehement opposition to
the “outflow of authority to Toulouse” in France. 

The unsavory nationalistic language spilled over onto the largest Airbus
demonstration in Germany where 20,000 union members from Airbus and supply
parts firms rallied on March 16 to demand the withdrawal of the Power 8
plan. At the time, IG Metall had struck the seven Airbus plants in Germany
and work stoppages hit Airbus production in Spain and France. In Britain,
hundreds of workers rallied at the town hall in Chester, North Wales. 

Socialist critics blasted IG Metall for inviting right-wing CDU politicians
to attend the massive rally in Hamburg. Günther Oet- tinger (CDU), the
minister- president of the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg, said,
“We are fighting for Airbus to remain in Germany.” Oettinger is currently
tangled up in a row involving a funeral speech in which he turned his predecessor,
Hans Filbinger (CDU), a Nazi naval judge, into an adversary of the Nazi
movement—a scandalous form of historical revisionism. Oettinger stressed
that “Filbinger was not a National Socialist” and “there was no verdict
from Hans Filbinger by which a person lost his life.” His defense of Filbinger
blanketed the front pages of the German dailies in April. Filbinger, who
campaigned with the slogan “Freedom or Socialism” during his election race
(1976) for the governorship of Baden-Württemberg, was a fierce opponent
of the 1960’s German counter-cultural student movement and created a right-wing
think tank that has close ties to reactionary intellectuals. The foundation
is a hotbed of ultra-nationalist German thinking. Filbinger issued the
death penalty to the WWII deserter Walter Gröger, a genuine resister of
Hitler, whose 78-year-old sister, Ursula Galke, said, “A person of Oettinger’s
intelligence should not be lying…. Mr. Filbinger was present during the
killing of my brother. He read him the sentence of death and stripped him
in a cynical way of his civil rights before his execution. The statements
from Mr. Oettinger are barefaced lies.” 

The president of IG Metall, Jürgen Peters—in contrast to the protectionist
German rhetoric of Oettinger—went to great lengths to not play the nationalistic
card during the Hamburg rally. Peters said, “We are not fighting against
our colleagues in France” and claimed that “workers do not allow themselves
to be played off against each other.” 

Empty union slogans or a genuine attempt to bring about an anti-nationalistic
union atmosphere? A telling example seems to suggest a case of phoney international
union solidarity. Peters negotiated a new labor agreement (September 2006)
with Europe’s largest auto manufacturer, VW. The main element involved
employment security for 100,000 German workers until 2010 in exchange for
an increased work week without additional pay. In December VW announced
the dismissal of 4,000 workers at its Belgium plant and the transfer of
the Golf VW auto production to two plants in Germany. This style of national-based
labor negotiations at the expense of other workers helps to explain why
behind the scenes Belgium trade unionists criticized the “crocodile tears”
of their German counterparts. 

A segment of the German labor movement grasps
the pressing need to change consciousness among
German workers, yet many unions remain stuck in
the Middle Ages

Political and economic nationalism remain hot button issues for German
trade unions, largely because of the fascist politics in German history.
Publik, the labor magazine for Germany’s largest service employees union
Ver.di, devoted several articles in its December 2006 issue to the “Danger
from the right” and outlined new academic studies documenting alarming
percentages of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in the German work
councils. The cover story highlighted an EU study showing growing racial
hatred directed at minority groups within the EU, according to official
data from the European Monitoring Centre of Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna.
A Free University of Berlin investigation established that 19 percent of
German trade unionists maintain extreme right-wing attitudes. 

A segment of the German labor movement grasps the pressing need to change
consciousness among German workers, yet many unions remain stuck in the
Middle Ages. For example the German labor federation (DGB) in the Berlin-
Brandenburg district dismissed the trade unionist and writer Esther Dischereit,
who was responsible for the DGB’s anti-racism website —though an administrative
labor law court reversed the termination and ordered the DGB to reeinstate
her. Dischereit had criticized the accommodating posture of the labor unions
to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in May 1933. 

Acoordinated strike action of the four EU countries—Germany, France, Spain
and England —to block the Power 8 downsizing program is an untapped bundle
of potential for creating a wave of internationalism. Unfortunately the
fragmented posture of the unions represents a failure to embrace the opportunity
to defeat a multinational corporation and inspire worker activism across
Europe. The German co-executive of Air- bus, Thomas Enders, told the magazine
Focus, “We are at this point highly vulnerable. Long strikes would affect
us severely and throw us still further back.” The turning inward of the
national unions advances Airbus’s agenda. The left-leaning German daily
Berliner Zeitung captured the disunity within the EU: “The case of the
wobbly company Airbus shows just how widespread economic nationalism is.
More than that, though, Airbus says a lot about Europe itself.” 

The most pressing and serious challenge for trade unionists on a regional
level is to create measures to protect union standards in a globalized
labor market. A hopeful move is the trans-Atlantic union merger among unions
in the U.S., England, Canada, and Ireland. The planned fusion is still
in its infancy, but officials of the British union, Amicus, which represents
Airbus workers in England, and United Steel Workers in the U.S., announced
a declaration to merge this past April. The multinational union would become
the world’s largest worker organization totalling 3.4 million members.

The merger plan, according to British and American trade unionists, is
the only remedy against worker exploitation on a globalized level. A concrete
example of globalized trade unionism is the labor protections secured for
workers in the maritime sector. A document (Bill of Rights) outlines the
health and safety protections for sea workers as well as wage and benefits
standards for 1.2 million seafarers. This movement from national- based
labor organizations to cross- border international unionism represents
hope for working people of the world. 


Ben Weinthal lives in Berlin and  is a Labor Notes correspondent for Germany,
Austria, and Switzerland