We publish an interview concerning the right to strike in Germany. We talked with Heiner Köhnen, member of TIE, a global network made of workers, trade-unionists and activists who since decades produce initiatives and organization across the borders. The so-called Tarifeinheitsgesetz law was approved last May by the German Parliament; it imposes that only the most representative trade union is able to take part to the bargaining related the labour contract (i.e. the dream of our Renzi comes true) and, thus, to strike, since the strike can be legally declared only in conjunction with the renewal of the contract. The law enjoys the support of an entire social block that, beyond the Große Koalition, includes DGB, the trade unions confederation, as well as Arbeitsgeberverband, the association of the entrepreneurs. This is a front which coalesced without too much difficulty against the wave of strikes, mostly organized by minor trade unions, that run over the «German locomotive» in the last months. The message is clear: the strike must be a poorly sharpened weapon and it is necessary to impede that workers and small trade unions get the chance to «held the society hostage», no matter why. As Heiner maintains, this law is telling about the will to solve in a legal way the political insufficiency of the big trade unions in front of today’s transformations of production, from the point of view of both the precarization of labour relationships, and of the transnational dimension of production. The motto «one company, one collective agreement», which is used to back the law, recalls an old slogan against trade union fragmentation, a slogan that, when proclaimed today, reveals nothing but a guilty anachronism. There is no more company unity to refer to. Company unity is therefore a fantasy that overshadows the real factory organization and the diffused precarity which fragmented that unity. In order not to contribute to this removal and to imagine the strike neither as an empty threat nor as an instrument of technical management of the disputes, it is necessary to start a discussion which is able to face the transformations of production and the problems that it poses on the side of organization. It is necessary to take into account some questions like: what does it mean today to be an industry worker? Why are male and female workers less and less organizing themselves inside the trade unions? How to accumulate the power that is necessary not to be «held hostage» by a society which demands more and more and gives less and less? These questions crossed the experiment of social strike in Italy on the 14th of November, and cross the attempts to involve, through the strikes, that society which purports to be untouched by the needs of the workers. These questions have been made clear during the strikes in the kindergartens in Frankfurt and dwell in the transnational communication between the German Amazon warehouses on strike and the new warehouses in Poland which have been recently built in order to soften the consequences of the blockades of the distribution. These questions will be central in the meeting towards a transnational social strike, which will take place in Poznan from the 2nd to the 4th of October 2015.
Many see the «Tarifeinheitsgesetz», the German law concerning the unitary collective bargaining, as a direct attack to the right to strike. Can you explain why?
The law says that a union that has not the majority in an enterprise is legally not allowed neither to strike nor to bargain. It means that, unless you have the majority, it is very hard to form a union, because if you can’t strike, you can’t make collective bargaining, then what’s the union for? The right to strike, as well as the freedom of association and organization will be wiped out by this law. Furthermore, the law that will be voted is part of a wider project to be enforced in the future. This project includes the so-called Daseinsfürsorge, that is the obligation of providing a part of the work in the places where a strike takes place, like it is now for hospitals and transportations; the obligation of announcing the strike four days before; and the presence of an enforced mediator that mediates the bargaining process in order to arrive to an agreement. So it is more complicated than a technical issue, even though it is often discussed just as a technical issue: the whole threat and strength of the strike is endangered.
The law has the support both of the Arbeitsgeberverband and of the DGB. What is the position of the major trade union on this law?
It is obvious that the Arbeitsgeberverband wants peace for assuring competitiveness. For example in the auto industry the bargaining of collective agreement is carried on with the IG Metal and they don’t like that new small unions suddenly raise problems. The strong unions part of the DGB are supporting the law, for various reasons. First, this is part of the ever existing split between union members that are for co-management and those who are for building power from below. Now the major unions, like the IG Metal, are working to keep the model of co-management. If you will be the only union to make the bargaining then of you are not forced to organize those that are not yet involved, you just have to seat at the bargaining table and you go straight to the solution. Second, for instance in the case of the IG Metal, they say that they represent the auto industry, which means the whole supply chain, including logistics. This claim puts it in conflict with the Ver.di, that claims to represent the logistic sector. So, instead of starting a joint political process of debate and organizing it is like wanting to change a political issue into administrative praxis, through a law, in order to exclude other possible ‘competitors’.
The proposal of the law came after a wave of strikes in particular in the sector of transportations, but also in Amazon warehouses throughout Germany. Do you see this as a reaction to that?
This is a good moment because there is a certain mainstream that says that the strike for example in the transportation are bad because a bunch of guys takes the whole society as a hostage. It is a good moment also because there is a strong political unity, so it is certain that this law will pass. Nonetheless, there is a wider background that has to be kept in mind. The motto «ein Betrieb, ein Vertrag» [one company, one collective agreement] was introduced after the second world war in the context of the recomposition of the left confronting its defeat in front of fascism. This lead also to the founding of Einheitsgewerschaften (unity unions), to reinforce the unity of the working class. One must say that it was never truly «unity», first because the Christian-democrats and the social-democrats always excluded communists and anarchists. Second, in practice it excluded the possibility of raising some issues such as conflicts around the rationalization of production. Furthermore, it excluded the feminist stance towards women work, part-time work etc. Even though it excluded important contradictions and problems, it had at least a real ground: one can say that a union engaged in the bargaining for a whole industry was actually bargaining for the whole industry. In the last 30 years this state of being was completely challenged by capital itself. First of all, since the ’80s and even more after the wall fell, many companies left the employers federation that is the counterpart of the bargaining. They did so in order not to be part to the collective agreements. In the Eastern state the majority of the companies did never enter the federation. Second, the logic «ein Betrieb, ein Vertrag» is challenged by the major process of deregulation, privatization, precarization, outsourcing, temporary labor and the like. The presumptuous «unity» is all the more divided now. Even in industries like Daimler, where the IG Metal has a long term and strong hold, in various factories more than half of the workers are no more Daimler workers. They are whatever else, outsourced, contract, all kind of workers. The fantasy of «ein Betrieb, ein Vertrag» did make sense back then, to be strong, and would make sense today, if you can build unity on a political term, but has been overcome by capital itself and the transformations reflect the defeats of the working class. What is now a metal worker? This problem does not have only an objective side, but also of course a subjective one. Even in the centers of Fordist production it is very different now what it means to be a worker.
So you are saying that the principle of «ein Betrieb, ein Vertag» does not come to term with the current transformation of the working relations. What are the consequences on the organization of work struggles and strike of this wider background?
There are many problems coming out from this. The conflicts between the unions arise now because the major unions do not cover the whole of an industry and its workers. Many struggles now are not part of the collective agreements. The traditional unions do not succeed now in getting really the whole industry. Subjectively, this is beyond this specific law, it is different when we consider the deep precarization of labour. For precarious workers don’t see the union anymore, or at least these big unions, as their own. For them, these unions are not able to articulate their interests. I find this very serious, because the union is not only a bargaining device, but also a place where your experience is valued or devalued. It is a form of public, in which you build your political consciousness, where your demands and needs are articulated, in which they become important or not (in the case there is no democratic public). In these traditional unions there seems to be no or little space for precarious workers to build a movement. It is not only that big unions do not succeed in making the collective agreement for them, but also subjectively they don’t feel them as their organization. And this is a fact, a reality, independently of the Tarifeinheitsgesetz now being discussed. So the problem has two aspects. On the one hand it is a matter of competition between unions, that some of them try to solve administratively. On the other, it needs to be placed in the context of the crisis, independently from the specific law and from Germany itself, which demands new ideas on how to organize, how to search for a unity. And this is not very much discussed.
Another element of this wider framework is the new or renewed activism of smaller basis unions.
Yes, the rise of smaller unions is to be placed in this context. For example the doctor’s union, the Marburger Bund, if you did ask me 20 years ago: «is that a union?». I would have answered: «No, it is a right wing association». In the end they emerged and they act in a conflict that the unions do not succeed anymore to cover. This is true also for the train drivers, for the pilots, and it is even true for the anarchist union (FAU). They have also existed for many years, but they were very small, suddenly their members are growing in some workplaces. These are symbols of major changes. The political problem is that the bigger unions are mostly not willing to face these contradictions through a political discussion, asking themselves: what is our problem? What is the changing situation? What do we have to do differently? There was a meeting two months ago of IG Metal, Chemical Union, the BAU, EVG, in the frame of the DGB but excluding Ver.di, that is part of the DGB. The meeting was meant to decide which union «owns» which sector. The intention is clearly to try to solve the changing reality and the erosion of the role of unions through administrative measures and not through a political discussion. It shows that these unions are not willing to understand the problem they face, that is why the workers don’t see them as their organizations.
How was organized the opposition to this law?
Part of the basis unions and part of the social movements have started a collaboration and we had a nation-wide demonstration the last month. Independently from how many people took the streets, it was funny because I never had such alliances. Groups with different perspectives, such as the GDL, the train union, parts of Ver.di, the FAU, and some left groups, came together. Something is happening at many levels and it is this new kind of alliance that might be interesting for the future.
From what you say it is clear that the right to strike has two sides, one is «administrative», can be part of a law that says yes or no, the other comprises the power necessary to strike and points to a wider political problem that is not reducible to the intra-union conflict.
Yes, that comes for me to the social strike discussion. It is interesting form me to link these discussions. Because, on the on hand, if you come from the old unions, you have to link it now with social questions. For example, at the Kita, they wanted to involve the parents, the clients, so that they can get stronger. But it is not just a technical issue, how are you technically able to strike. The problem is also how can we mobilize people around the problem raised by the strike as a practice. For doing that we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions: how do we organize? How do we link social and work questions?