German train drivers face political struggle

On November 8, the German train drivers’ union (GDL, Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer) shut down a strike by 20,000 workers demanding better pay and a shorter workweek at Deustche Bahn (DB), the national rail operator.

The decision to end the previously announced five-day strike more than a day in advance allowed the government of Angela Merkel to proceed with its official celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall without disruption.

The calling off of the strike, which had stopped two-thirds of the country’s rail service, was not a simply a tactical decision. It was a political signal to the government. In sending train drivers back to work, GDL head Claus Weselsky and his colleagues in the union leadership made clear that they have no intention of challenging the government’s attacks on the working class. On the contrary, they demonstrated their readiness to collaborate with the government in order to secure their own institutional interests.

The GDL’s capitulation took place as the government prepares to pass a law aimed at prohibiting the train drivers’ union and any other union that in any way operates independently of the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB). The GDL is seeking to organize 17,000 other DB workers who are not engine drivers, including food servers, conductors and dispatchers, and negotiate a separate contract from the DGB-affiliated Eisenbahn- und Verkehrsgewerkschaft (EVG).

The Merkel government has responded by announcing that it would accelerate the passage of the law in the cabinet over the next few weeks. The new law would enforce the so-called principle of a “single contract,” essentially binding transport workers to the labor agreements signed by the largest unions. In this case, it would mean forcing rail workers to accept the sweetheart deals signed by EVG, whose representatives sit on Deutsche Bahn’s executive board where they have collaborated in the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs.

The Christian Social Union (CSU) has gone a step further, announcing on Monday a legal initiative to force arbitration. This law would ensure that future strikes in the “core areas of public service” no longer take place without prior mediation. Officials have not said whether a decision on the basis of mediation would be binding or whether it would restrict who would be allowed to strike.

These laws are aimed at cementing the control of the DGB bureaucracy in all workplaces and facilities. Only DGB unions would have the right to negotiate wage contracts, to determine their duration and to decide when strikes will be permitted. Every strike organized by the workers themselves will be declared illegal in advance.

The retreat of the GDL has only strengthened the government and the DB executive board. This underscores one basic truth: train drivers, conductors and other rail employees cannot achieve their entirely justified demands within the framework of the GDL or with its bankrupt political outlook of appealing to the state.

Train drivers are known for their straightforwardness and readiness to accept the demanding responsibilities of their jobs. Now it is their task to look soberly at the political reality they face without the slightest false hope or wishful thinking.

The DB executive board is backed by all of the parties in the federal government, the business associations, the DGB, the media and the courts. No one should have any illusions in the Frankfurt labor court because of its initial decision to reject DB’s appeal for a back-to-work order. This was a tactical decision aimed at avoiding a political confrontation on the eve of the Berlin Wall celebrations, and was no doubt motivated by the court’s anticipation that the GDL would call off the strike anyway.

If rail and other transport workers were to defy the authority of the unions and expand their struggle to other sections of the working class, the same courts would immediately issue strikebreaking orders and unleash the full weight of the capitalist state against them.

In other words, train drivers and other transport workers confront a struggle not just against DB or Lufthansa, but against the entire economic and political set up. Opposing the right-wing attacks against the GDL does not mean giving it a free pass politically. In the end, it offers workers no way forward. The craft union outlook of the GDL and its acceptance of the economic and political subordination of the working class to German capitalism can only lead workers to disaster.

In order to develop a movement of the working class powerful enough to defeat this lineup of corporate-government forces, train drivers require an entirely new political strategy based on an international socialist program.

During the strike, many of the train drivers emphasized that the struggle was about the defense of social rights, including the right to strike and collectively organize. Among the banners at the demonstration outside DB’s Berlin headquarters last week was one that read, “Social rights are not negotiable!”

However, this is exactly what is now taking place. Even if the GDL and the executive board came to an agreement and found a formula for compromise, the problems facing rail workers would not be resolved. The right of workers to protect themselves from layoffs, falling income and increased pressure on the job has been under steady attack by all of the big business parties.

This attack is directly linked with the worsening of the international crisis of capitalism and the European Union. The German government is reacting to the crisis by reviving German militarism and making preparations for a dictatorship. Since the announcement of the end of German military restraint at the beginning of this year, the German government is massively rearming itself. In Ukraine and the Middle East, Germany is already playing an active political and military role.

The result will be major social and political conflicts. These have already begun, but they will only intensify as the government prepares additional cuts to social programs to make millions available for building up the military apparatus. Sending the army into new wars in the face of the opposition of the population will also require further attacks on fundamental democratic rights.

A hundred years ago, the unions made a “truce” with the government, brought the fight for higher wages to a halt during the First World War and then imposed a ban on strikes. Once again the DGB is lining up behind the war policies of the government and supporting the restriction of the right to strike.

The struggle of the train drivers can become the point of departure for a broader political movement by the whole working class against the German government and its policies of austerity and war. The train drivers, who frequently drive over national borders and are well connected internationally, must call for a unified struggle by all of the workers in Europe who face the same demands for ever greater sacrifice from the political parties of every stripe that represent the ruling class. A few weeks ago, the pilots union in France stifled a strike at precisely the moment when other workers began to signal their support and it threatened to erupt into a broader mobilization against the hated Hollande government.

Train drivers and all other workers must turn to a new political perspective. The hope that it would be possible to fight the dictatorship of the DGB with a less corrupt and ostensibly more militant trade union has shown itself to be false.

What is needed is a political party that opposes the logic of capitalist private profit with an international socialist program and strategy. This party exists. It is the Partei für Soziale Gleichheit (PSG), the German section of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

Many anniversaries and commemorative ceremonies have taken place recently. But what workers must remember is that their own history did not begin with unions. It began with a revolutionary, socialist party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Under the leadership of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, and based on the revolutionary theory of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the SPD awoke the working class to political life.

The unions came into existence later, but from their beginning they made up the pro-capitalist right-wing of the SPD. The unions bear a large part of the responsibility for the great betrayal of 1914, when the SPD supported the First World War. They also opposed the November uprising of 1918 and the October 1917 revolution in Russia. Later, the Social Democrats used the crimes of Stalinism to promote anticommunism and collaboration with the class enemies of the working class.

With his decision to stifle the strike so that the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall could take place undisturbed, Claus Weselsky—a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—took sides with the government and its spectacle in Berlin, which was aimed at spreading the lie that socialism has failed.

But historical facts are stubborn things. Notwithstanding all the propaganda, it is not socialism that failed a quarter of a century ago, but Stalinism. Leon Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the Fourth International defended the perspective of socialism. The PSG represents the political continuity of this tradition. The building of rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions and in solidarity with the PSG, and the discussion and clarification of these historical questions is the most important preparation for the coming class struggles.

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[6 October 2014]