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.
|Photo by Marianne Bieler|
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.