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W olfgang 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.
DAVID BACON: 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?
WOLFGANG 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.
That’s a dramatic demonstration of opposition. What’s the source of the anger against Schroeder?
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 sentiments?
This 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.
What specifically is Gerhard Schroeder proposing?
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. 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.
Third, 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.
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.
What is the unemployment rate in Germany right now?
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 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.
The 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?
Germany 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.
Now 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.”
It’s 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.
Do you see what’s happening here as part of something bigger?
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. 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.
What kinds of activities were you able to carry out in the workplace that allowed you to convince so many people to come out here?
The 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.
In 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.
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 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.
You were able to get up in front of management, criticize the Schroe- der agenda, and tell people to come to a rally?
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 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.
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 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.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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