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GERMAN UNIONS AND SOCIAL DEMOCRATS -- COMING TO BLOWS?

Interview with Wolfgang Mueller, the top organizer for the
German union IG Metall's campaign among high-tech workers,
including those at the Siemens Electrical Corporation

By David Bacon
Nuremberg, Germany
(5/25/03)

D: I'm in a central square in the city of Nuremberg, with 15,000 union members who marched from three 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?

W: 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 Mr. Schroeder is starting to do real damage, with big cuts.  That's the reason why fifteen to twenty thousand people are here in Nuremberg  and similar numbers in fifteen other cities.  All over Germany today there are demonstrations, and we expect that over 200,000 people will participate.

D: That's a dramatic demonstration of opposition.  What's the source of the anger against Schroeder?

W: Mr. Schroeder was elected by workers, not by management -- the top shots -- and he won by campaigning on two issues.  First, he was against the US 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 made during his election campaign.  People in the unions, in his Social Democratic Party, feel betrayed.  They think he's a liar.  Schroeder advocates the same reforms Maggie Thatcher imposed fifteen to twenty years ago in the UK.  And the cynical part of it is that in Germany only a Social-Democratic Chancellor could propose these deep cuts.  Union members elected this Prime Minister, and now we have a problem.

D: 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 - IG Metall, the German industrial union, Ver.di, the social services and public sector union.  Most are carrying pre-printed banners and flags, but in and among them there are a lot of signs workers have made themselves, hand lettered signs that are particularly angry and sharp in the way they talk about Schroeder.  What are these homegrown sentiments?

W: This is the first time I've seen these kind of signs in union demonstrations -- banners hand-made by the people themselves.  They describe the deep sentiment people have.  Nothing pre-printed, nothing pre-made.  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.  This placard compares the amount Schroeder's relatives will get when he dies, about 20,000 Euros ($24,000), and the benefit the relatives of a normal guy, Mr. Joe Smith, will get -- about 500 Euros ($600).  Some banners are demanding that the politicians who propose cuts in pensions, and the university academics who support them, get the same cuts themselves.  Right now, after eight years of service, a member of federal or provincial parliament qualifies for a pension of about 5000-7000 Euros per month.  But after 35 years at a normal job, you get 1100 Euros if you're a man.  A woman gets even less -- about 600 or 500 Euros per month.

D: What specifically is Gerhard Schroeder proposing?

W: There 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.  It's not like the US, where a company can sack the so-called low performers and keep the others.  Now they want to change the system so that the company can apply so-called performance criteria.

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 at maximum.

Third, they want to cut the health care benefits you get when you're sick 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% 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 -- one percent of their salary each month.  So this proposal is just robbery of the healthcare system we've already paid for.

Schroeder 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.

D: What is the unemployment rate in Germany right now?

W: The 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 25-40%.  Schroeder's reforms won't create any jobs there, especially.  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.

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

W: Germany now has a unionization rate of about 28%, 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 US.  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.

Now the Social Democratic Party, and Mr. Schroeder himself, 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 US.  That is the positive side.  A lot of my colleagues, a lot of organizers. are realizing that the old type of social democratic politics doesn't work anymore.

D: It sounds as though the attitude being taken by Mr. Schroeder is similar to that taken by politicians in the US who essentially say to unions: "I don't really have to listen to you because there's really no where else for you to go; there's no other party you can vote for, so it's either me or no one."

W: It's the same. Mr. 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.  One of the shortcomings of the campaign against the Schroeder reforms is that we have been very late in coming out with our own ideas and our own issues.  As unions, we can't say that there are no problems in Germany.  There are a lot of problems, of course, and the country has to be modernized. But we should put on the table our own agenda, our own ideas.  That is much better in terms of how the public perceives us than just saying no.

D: Do you see what's happening here as part of something bigger?

W: In 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.   It's necessary. Social democratic parties are going "mainstream," that is, they are doing more or less the same things right wing governments do.  The same business agenda.   There's not much difference.  The main interest of the leaders of our Social Democratic Party is to be in charge, to get the government jobs.  If they have to get government jobs with the support of the top-shots of German management, they will do it. German unions really need to understand this big change in the political landscape.  We can go on our own and that would be much better for us.

D: What kinds of activities were you able to carry out in the workplace, which allowed you to convince so many people to come out here?

W: The basic issue for mobilizing is to do it on the workplace level. We have no other means.  Especially in the car and electronics industry, we have very a very good system of shop stewards.  They spread the "gospel" of this meeting.

In the German system you have two pillars of worker's representation. One is the union, not a company union, but an industry-wide union. The other pillar is the works council, which is stipulated by law. Each company plant has to have one. 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 works councils go in the same direction.

In 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 an average, 20 to 60 percent of all workers and white-collared employees come.  Normally, the works council chairman or chairwoman 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.  And of course, we also call for participation at the rallies.

D: So you were able to get up at a worker's assembly in front of company management, criticize the Schroeder agenda, and tell people to come to a rally?

W: Yes.  That's a very good opportunity.  This 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 if 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 US, where you have to show 50% support, fight union-busters in elections, or try to, politick to get card-check agreements, and so on.

If 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.

There are a lot of differences between the labor situation in the US and in Germany.  But as unions, we are facing similar problems -- in Germany, the US, the UK, France and everywhere.  The big 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.


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