And here we are in Berlin, which can feel like a black hole of the class struggle. Germany has a relatively high unionization rate, yet an astonishingly low number of strike days compared to other European countries. German workers are almost twice as likely to belong to unions as their French counterparts, yet they protest about a tenth as much.
The very strength of the German workers’ movement has turned into a weakness (dialectics!): The wealthy bureaucracies that run the unions are committed to Sozialpartnerschaft and ruthlessly suppress all urges to fight.
And yet! At the moment, Berlin is experiencing a minor strike wave. You’d hardly notice watching public TV or reading the big newspapers. But at least four big strikes are either underway or about to start.
Germany’s privatized postal service is doing fine. In 2020, Deutsche Post made a record profit of eight billion euros — and topped that in 2021 with 8.4 billion. While shareholders are celebrating, two groups are less satisfied: workers and customers.
In 2020, Deutsche Post made a record profit of eight billion euros — and topped that in 2021 with 8.4 billion.
Mail delivery has never been worse — I’ve seen letters within Berlin take three weeks to arrive. In the middle of historic inflation, mail carriers are working longer hours while their wages plummet. The trade union ver.di (the united service sector union) is demanding a 15% pay raise — which sounds like a lot, but is not much above the inflation rate. On January 20, 16,700 postal workers went on strike for a day.
Did you notice that letters and packages didn’t arrive that day? For once, there was a good reason.
Germany’s hospitals have been in crisis for two decades, ever since a so-called “healthcare economist” named Karl Lauterbach developed a plan to make them more “efficient” using market mechanisms and Diagnosis Related Groups (DRGs). Now the typical Krankenhaus can have a post-apocalyptic feel, with tons of expensive machines, but far too few workers to offer basic care.
the typical Krankenhaus can have a post-apocalyptic feel, with tons of expensive machines, but far too few workers
For years, nurses and other hospital workers have been fighting for minimum staffing ratios and against outsourcing. The Krankenhausbewegung (Hospital Movement) has a certain tradition of holding assemblies for union members and taking votes on important questions. In Berlin, one such assembly called for a 19% raise — they will be part of the TVöD strikes (see below).
Making the working conditions in hospitals less terrible is really in everyone’s interest.
Many Berlin schools have the same post-apocalyptic feel as hospitals.
These strikes can hardly be waved off as “greedy teachers” asking for more money
It’s not just that the buildings are falling apart and needs hundreds of millions of euros for basic maintenance. The city is in the midst of a Lehrer:innenmangel (lack of teachers), with 1,000 positions currently unfilled. This means classes are getting bigger, while “substitute” teachers are filling in for years at a time – and the problem will only get worse as tens of thousands of teachers retire.
Politicians and self-proclaimed “experts” have a simple solution: forcing teachers to work longer hours. But this will have the opposite effect: teachers are already expected to put in 50 or 60 hours a week, which is why many have to work part time or take early retirement. In the last year, the teachers’ union GEW has organized at least eight strikes with thousands of teachers. This has barely been mentioned in the media, but many Berlin parents have noticed.
These strikes can hardly be waved off as “greedy teachers” asking for more money — their main demand is for smaller classes, which is in the interests of students, parents, and everyone.
In the next few weeks, we will see demonstrations of tens of thousands of Berlin workers
This last one is the biggest but also the most confusing: Germany’s public sector workers have two different Tarifverträge (union contracts). TVöD covers workers for the federal government and the municipalities — a total of 2.5 million people —, while TVL is for employees of state governments. (The cutoff is not always clear, particularly in places like Berlin that are both states and cities.)
Right now, different unions are negotiating with the public-sector bosses about an updated TVöD. Across Germany, 250,000 union members have signed a petition in support of the demand for 10.5% higher wages, with a minimum increase of at least 500 euros (meaning that lower-paid workers will get more proportionally).
In the next few weeks, we will see demonstrations of tens of thousands of Berlin workers, which will shut down government offices of all kinds. Two weeks ago, there was already a protest by waste collectors of the BSR.
All these workers are making very basic demands: they don’t want their wages to be sucked up by inflation while their working conditions deteriorate. In every single case, they’re told that there’s no money. Yet the Deutsche Post somehow has money to pay out billions in dividends, while the German government found €100 billion for militarism.
German unions have no tradition of organizing big political demonstrations to win solidarity. No, strikes here tend to be extremely bureaucratic affairs that only mobilize union members.This is why the teachers’ union GEW, for example, has thus far refused to bring out students and parents in support of their imminently popular demands.
But as workers in France and England are showing us right now, strikes should be an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets. So let’s join the strikes in Berlin. I’ll see you on the picket lines!