Twenty factories in the steel and electronics industry went on strike in Saxony in April and May, along with six steel mills in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Steelworkers of Thuringia, Berlin and Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt also joined in. JACOB MONETA looks at the roots of the conflict.
The May 1 issue of the PDS (former East German CP) newspaper reprinted the front page of the daily Junge Welt of June 30 and July 1, 1990. The headline said, in large bold characters, "Forward, and don't forget: things will not be worse than now for any citizen of the German Democratic Republic! On the contrary!"
The people of the GDR voted massively for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), certain that this would lead to what the 1990 "Social Report" said about the federal government-authored agreement negotiated with GDR: "With respect to the difficulties of transition, monetary, economic and social union will mean a considerable growth in production, new jobs and an increase in salaries. And a social security system far superior to that which existed in the GDR will be put in place."
But after that time, the refrain changed from year to year. In 1991, the chancellor was still saying, "No-one will see their situation worsen". In 1992, he declared, "Now is not the time for salary demands". And in 1993, "We have lived beyond our means. Unfailing discipline is the imperative of the hour."
In the former GDR at the end of 1992, industrial production was less than a third of what it was in 1989. The active population, which reached 9.9 million people in 1989, was reduced to 5.1 million in 1992. 650,000 work part-time or are involved in retraining programs.
While the number of welfare recipients in the former West Germany tripled between 1973 and 1990, their number has quadrupled in 21 months (from September 1990 to June 1992) in the ex-GDR, and is now 200,000
Unemployment in the ex-GDR has primarily struck women (some 63%) and young people under 20 years of age. There is a particularly high number of unemployed who have a high level of education, qualifications and specialisation. Out of 17 million inhabitants, the ex-GDR had 2 million post-secondary and technical graduates. More than 1 million of these graduates now find themselves on the margins of society — hit by the loss of employment and deprived of their pensions. The 50% drop in the birth rate in the ex-GDR is an unambiguous sign of the population's loss of hope.
In the GDR, most people had the illusion that it would be sufficient to convert East German marks into West German marks in order to attain prosperity and also, above all, to gain access to West Germany's social gains. They did not understand that these social gains were the fruits of labour and social struggles, and did not flow automatically from the market and competition.
During the shutting down of factories and the first firings, the workplace councils expressed their approval "with a clear conscience". This was due to the fact that the first to go was the so-called "unproductive work force" — the cumbersome bureaucracy in the factories, but also supposedly "marginal" elements and the handicapped, all characterised as "unproductive".
Moreover, the factory councils believed that productivity gains could be made only through privatisation. Everyone thought that unemployment would last only as long as it took to make the new privatised firms efficient, healthy and profitable.
To be sure, there was an undeniable shock for many struck by unemployment, all the more so given that they had never had such an experience before. Women were particularly hard hit, since workplace child-care centres were simply shut down, seen as obstacles to "profitability".
This was accepted with the same notion that better days were on their way. After all, the federal chancellor himself had promised that no-one would
experience a worsening of their situation.
Resistance in the ex-GDR was seen from the beginning with the strikes of the postal and railway workers, which nevertheless ended too soon. As far as IG-Metall [the metalworkers' union] is concerned, a questionnaire circulated in 1990 gave some idea of the union full-timers' opinions.
The great majority of respondents — either by instinct or after having had the practical experience of the liquidation policy of the Treuhandanstalt [the body in charge of privatising enterprises] — came to the conclusion that the unions were the only force potentially able to exert real influence on the government's policy. But, according to many, until that point, this had only been true in certain cases, and only after spontaneous resistance developed in isolated workplaces.
Then came the social conflicts, accompanied by workplace occupations (hardly a common occurrence in Germany), supported by the structures of IG-Metall. This was the case, for example, during the occupation of the Henningsdorf steel plant and shipbuilding yards — occupations which spread to other workplaces.
In Berlin a Collective of Workplace Councils first appeared which, acting independently, called publicly for a halt to the shutdowns. It also demanded that the Treuhand seek to "upgrade" factories before privatising them, with protection for the work force during privatisation.
This collective brought together not only IG-Metall representatives, but also people from other unions. From the beginning, two things were clearly stated: the collective intended to remain independent from all parties, and it requested that they all support its demands.
In no way did they want a split in the union, which could have created an "eastern union". The collective underlined that unions would do well to base their activities directly on the experience of the workplace councils, which had already gone through all the ups and downs of illusion, hope and disillusionment with respect to their adversaries, in
particular with respect to the Treuhand.
During its first congress, on June 20, 1992, in Berlin, the collective drew up in an appeal the following evaluation of the Treuhand's activities:
"Various adventurers, new and old cliques, real estate speculators and private investors of all stripes snatch up the tastiest morsels of the ex-GDR; and the Treuhand serves them dishes of a finely sliced and 'fat-free' work force and they fill their pockets with tax subsidies — while all this goes on, thousands of working people, men and women, are condemned to unemployment, part-time work and retraining programs, forced into early retirement, herded into ill-fated temporary workplaces and hassled by the demands of supposed 'former owners'. Desperately, workplace councils are trying to save those jobs which still can be saved. Over the last few months, in Henningsdorf, Finow, Rostock, Riesa and many other places, the employees occupied their workplaces. Tens of thousands of people descended into the streets to protest against the destruction of jobs. Now, we have to reflect, discuss and better coordinate the struggle for the creation of jobs."
After listing the main demands, the text concluded, "It is only by exerting collective public pressure on political leaders that we can make ourselves heard and win our demands".
After this first meeting, which had the support of the national union federation, the DGB, the collective contacted all the political parties in Bonn. In Bonn on September 9, with 300 workplace councillors, it organised a protest demonstration and met the parliamentary groups and Chancellor Kohl.
On the morning of this initiative, the collective learned from the press that IG-Metall — to whom it had delivered all its publications and with whom it had even had friendly discussions within the collective — was taking its distance.
Under pressure from IG-Metall, the DGB began to avoid giving direct support. During the October IG-Metall congress in Hamburg, the collective addressed itself to the union through its magazine Eastern Wind,
to make clear its goals. However, in his report, IG-Metall leader Franz Steinkuhler rejected all forms of support to the collective, for fear of provoking a split.
A second collective meeting took place in Berlin on November 21, and on December 15 a protest march in front of the Treuhand gathered 1200 people, half of whom were members of workplace councils and workers' delegates from the Lnder (states) in the east and west Berlin.
In February the "revolt of the dwarfs" broke out in West Mecklenburg-Pomerania. Actions followed in the steel industry in the east and west — with a 24-hour strike in the Hoesch-Krupp group's factories and, in March, a demonstration of 65,000 steelworkers in the north which marked a qualitative turn in the situation. The workers of the east and the west showed that they belonged to the same organisation, IG-Metall, and that they could act together.
Under the name "Enough is enough! Northern Germany has awoken", a series of spectacular actions took place, displaying tremendous inventiveness. The locks of the North Baltic Canal were shut down, a rally was organised in Pinneburg-Itzehoe, while in Schwerin the steelworkers, men and women, blocked access to the regional parliament. In the port of Hamburg, IG-Metall and the TV (the office workers' union federation) organised a "scrap metal demonstration"; in West Mecklenburg-Pomerania, the railway bridge to Rügen Island was blocked.
The 60,000-strong demonstration in Bonn was characterised by the massive participation of metalworkers from the east and West. This pattern was seen again in the warning strikes which affected the whole country and caught union leaders off guard: the workers of the east are ready to strike, in spite of media claims to the contrary.
And even the heavy artillery, the DGB, entered into the fray. On April 24, 200,000 members from the whole spectrum of German unions participated in six demonstrations in solidarity with IG-Metall, four in the west and the two in the east in Potsdam and Leipzig. After referenda on strike action in Saxony
and East German steel industry, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper wrote, "This does not come as a surprise to anyone. 90% of unionists ... want to strike."
Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake — and not only in steel, the mines and textiles, but also in automobiles and the mechanical industry. Only a united strategy of all the unions, only the collective mobilisation of everyone, in the east and west, can have enduring results and force the employers and the government to back down from their current policies. [First published in the French newspaper Rouge. English translation reprinted, abridged, from International Viewpoint.]