German Union Suffers First Defeat in 50 Years

"It was at times almost like in a civil war," commented Klaus-Dieter Utoff, an IG Metall union representative from Chemnitz, East Germany. Utoff was not alluding to Cold War hostilities between the two formerly-divided German republics; but rather, to the four-week IG Metall strike over the length of the work week in East Germany.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 achieved political unification, following 40 years of division, between East and West Germany. Yet an economic wall continues to separate eastern workers from their western counterparts.


IG Metall, the 2.8 million-member industrial union in Germany, pulled the plug on the four-week strike, which hit the country's auto industry in June. The union's chief goal was to standardize working hours between workers in the East German Federal States of Sachsen, Brandenburg, and Berlin and their fellow unionists in West Germany.

Workers in the East have a 38-hour week while their co-union members enjoy a 35-hour week. As a result, East Germans work longer hours for the same wages and the disparity has created an atmosphere of second-class citizenship in the East.

The strike brought the production of Volkswagen autos (including the popular Golf model) to a grinding halt. 20,000 VW autos were not manufactured during the strike phase, while 10,000 BMW workers were laid off during the strike because auto parts could not be delivered.

Klaus Zwickel, the president of IG Metall, acknowledged that "the bitter truth is that the strike has failed." The result is the most powerful and largest industrial union among the advanced capitalist nations suffered its first defeat since 1954.


IG Metall’s strike coincided with the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most famous workers’ rebellion in German history. “June 17 is one of the proud days in German history," commented the German President Johannes Rau on the series of work stoppages that took place in the former East German republic on June 17, 1953.

The media and political establishment have heaped unconditional praise on the 1953 strikes, which protested increased workloads and were crushed by the Soviet military.

In sharp contrast to this praise, Social Democratic Party (SPD) economics minister Wolfgang Clement described the IG Metall strike as a "conflict at a bad moment in a bad place." The influential weekly magazine Der Spiegel labeled the IG Metall action "the absurd strike in East Germany."

The German economy is admittedly stagnating, with joblessness at 11.3% nationwide and 19% in East Germany. During the strike, manufacturers exploited acute unemployment by threatening to re-locate their operations to the nations of Eastern Europe if prevailing labor conditions in East Germany were revamped.



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BMW announced that it planned to reassess its decision to build a new factory in the East German city of Leipzig which would result in 5,500 new jobs.

Zwickel remarked that "public opinion turned against the union during the conflict." A January 2003 public opinion poll asked how much trust people have in the unions. 49% of the respondents replied little, 20% practically none, and 25% a great deal.

Indeed, the cards seemed to be heavily stacked against IG Metall. Massive unemployment, job anxiety and insecurity, plant relocations, a paucity of public sympathy for unionized workers, the anti-union media, and a government which views the German union movement as interfering with reforms necessary for a business-friendly German economy.

Yet persistent unemployment has plagued Germany for over 10 years and the timing of a strike will always be the union’s enemy.


The strike failed in part because IG Metall failed to mount a broad-based corporate-style campaign to win over the German public and shift blame to the employers. Additionally, the union conducted the strike with membership mobilization limited to picketing the struck factories.

The strike target was simply too narrow: the production process in East Germany. Sympathy strikes conducted by IG Metall unionists in West German plants could have inflicted unprecedented pressure on the Gesamtmetall, the employer association.

Given the high level of unionization in Germany (35% of the workforce), high wages, and humane working conditions (e.g., 30 paid vacation days, the highest number among industrialized workers), it is understandable why German unions do not look to the American labor movement for labor strategy.

Yet the Teamsters strike victory in 1997 at UPS, which served to win over American public opinion about the pressing need for full-time jobs with benefits, could have been instructive for the German union. IG Metall missed an opportunity to broaden the strike as a fight for social justice and family-friendly policies. The reduction of the workweek means a worker can spend more time with his or her family. Germans understand the value of “freizeit,” or free-time.

The German union movement, given the high percentage of organized labor, is equipped to overcome management resistance and the current SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's "Agenda 2010" which seeks to dismantle Germany's robust and enviable social welfare state. The "Agenda 2010" follows the Tony Blair and Bill Clinton tradition of slashing social services and weakening labor power in the name of a more deregulated free-enterprise system; the so-called "third way."

Someone once quipped that if German workers were to seize a train station, they would first pay for a ticket before entering--an apt commentary for the direction of many of the unions in the highly industrialized nations. Unconventional strategies are dismissed as wild adventurism. Like their American counterparts, German unions are in a defensive posture and must find new methods to blunt employer aggression and rekindle militant unionism, even if it means not paying for a train ticket.