The 2007 founding of Die Linke, or the Left Party, in Germany marked a crack in the social-democratic hegemony that characterizes Germany’s trade unions. This hegemony had been eroding since the 1990s, but in the wake of mass protests against the “Agenda 2010” reforms, fractions of the trade unions finally broke with the neoliberalized Social Democratic Party (SPD) to participate in the founding of Die Linke. The party has thus far been able to fill the gap it created and establish itself as a strong minority wing within the trade unions. At the same time, it faces the challenge of extending its support to unionized wage earners and expanding its “use value” within the struggles for better living and working conditions.
Partly in an attempt to address these challenges, Katja Kipping and I have been working towards renewal of our party’s culture and strategy as a “connective party” (see Kipping/Riexinger 2015) since 2012. This comes from the insight that a change in the relation of forces in society is the only possible basis for shifting the balance of forces within the state, and thus for even considering participation in government. Socialist parties must not limit themselves to the parliamentary representation of existing social forces. Their function is to actively build the class power of working people and social hegemony for emancipatory and socialist goals. With the cancellation of the welfare state class compromise in neoliberal capitalism, the balance of forces between capital and labor has shifted in favor of capital. The use value of a socialist party thus must be measured by its ability to build organizing power, identify shared interests, and formulate and represent political goals among different sections of wage laborers. The concept of the connective party thus means that Die Linke ought to view itself not only as the parliamentary representative of wage laborers, but also as an “organic” and active part of the trade union movement itself. Contrary to Lenin’s concept of the party, this does not mean subordinating the trade unions to a party that holds a monopoly on political struggle, but rather an alliance of equals that encourages the development of independent initiatives within the trade unions. This must be judged by its ability to resonate among the majority of working people, including the unemployed, to create connections of solidarity among different groups of employees, and to reach out with its own goals into the SPD’s base.
New Defensive Beginnings: Supporting New Strike Involvement
The flipside of what neoliberal economists and the German government describe as the “German miracle,” namely, the overcoming of the deep collapse during the global economic crisis of 2008–09, is intensified polarization and precarization of the working and living environment. Millions of people, 25–30% of all wage-earners, are employed on temporary contracts as casual staff, as contract workers, or in so-called “mini-jobs.” The national government’s introduction of an hourly minimum wage of €8.50 did not eliminate Europe’s largest low-wage sector, while even many people outside this sector struggle to get by on their current wages.
The IG Metall, the single largest union in Europe with over two million members, has managed to stabilize its unionization rate and even win moderate pay raises. That said, both the manufacturing industry and the booming export sector are witnessing a hardening division between the so-called core workforce and the 20–40% of precarious employees. The outsourcing of work to contracting firms is linked to employers’ ongoing withdrawal from collective bargaining agreements with the unions, wage dumping, and the weakening of social standards. The same goes for privatization and the relocation of hospital workers and employees of other public institutions into the ranks of private subcontractors. This development has had fatal consequences for the organizational power and influence of unions. Coverage by collective labor agreements has been dramatically reduced, and is now at only 51% of employees in the west and 37% in the east of the country. This has direct consequences on wages, since there is a roughly 18% difference in pay between employees covered by collective wage agreements and those who are not.
In recent years, and against the background of decades of relatively low strike activity, new strike movements have developed, such as those in the retail sector, the security industry, call centers, food production, cleaning, the food service industry, teaching, and nursing staff in hospitals. New agents of struggle have emerged from the strikes in the service industries; the participation of women and migrants is often particularly high. Building on these tendencies in the class struggle and making them the springboard of a political offensive must be at the heart of a connective party’s trade union strategy. It is a central task of Die Linke to support union revitalization efforts towards conflict orientation and the democratization of strikes. The party can contribute to this by creating spaces for the exchange of experiences between strikers from different companies and industries, wherein a mutual learning process can take place and a political culture of solidarity can develop. These activities can’t be organized by the unions alone, and more importantly, such initiatives strengthen Die Linke by anchoring it in the trade union rank-and-file — a key goal of the party in the coming years.
Given our limited resources, it would be wise to set priorities, engaging in model conflicts and industries in order to make Die Linke’s potential value evident to all workers and achieve tangible victories. As a first step, we want to concentrate on the social, health, and nursing professions. More people work in the social services sector today than in all of Germany’s export industries combined. Policies of deliberate under-funding and economizing social services are part of the neoliberal export model. This sort of care work, mostly conducted by women, is devalued in comparison to labor in the export industries.
A historical victory was won in this sector in April 2016 by the nursing staff of Berlin’s Charité hospital — namely, staff won their first contract stipulating an increase in the number of hospital personnel so as to reduce overall stress for workers. This fight had been prepared for years through the deep involvement of workers whose success was not least due to new approaches such as “wage councilors” (Wolf 2015). With a so-called “bed-and-station closing strike,” a high strike level could be achieved even in sensitive areas such as intensive care, making it possible for workers to apply real economic pressure. Moreover, demands for more personnel and less work stress fostered alliances with patients and other segments of workers. Active party members and social movement activists formed a coalition to support the strike, drawn in by the struggle’s connection to quality health care and good employment conditions for all as an alternative to permanent stress. Slogans such as “more of us is better for everyone” or “striking against the burn-out society” struck at the heart of the matter. The Charité case is now reverberating in hospitals across the country, where the experiences gathered in Berlin are being discussed as actions are planned.
In the context of an ongoing campaign against precarious working and living conditions, we are attempting to provide political support to the struggle for more social sector personnel and connect to conflicts in the workplace, encouraging employees, patients, and other interested parties to come together and cooperate in loose, open campaigning groups. Our objective is to connect the various conflicts in hospitals, day-care, and schools and forge a socio-political struggle to raise the value of social services and expand good education, care, and healthcare for all.
Political Offensive for New Normal Working Conditions
Truly moving out of a defensive position, however, is only possible through a cross-sector shake-up of political and social relations. This is because, although it’s possible to win an admirable struggle in isolated cases — such as happened in the retail sector in 2014 — or even to repel a direct attack on sector-wide bargaining agreements, more and more firms are simply withdrawing from such agreements unilaterally. The most important strike at Amazon lasted for two years for this very same reason, namely, that it is objectively difficult to win a labor conflict and exert pressure on the capital side with a largely temporary workforce subject to constant personnel changes. In 2015, tens of thousands of people in the social service and education sectors went on strike for a significant pay raise, and with it the increased social recognition of their important but underpaid labor. Nevertheless, facing the pressure of deficit reduction policies and the fiscal emergency afflicting many local governments, they were only able to achieve in part the aim of a sustainable improvement of social work, even in this well-organized and strike-inclined sector with a longer history of struggle.
The union apparatuses, still strongly influenced by Social Democracy, are poorly prepared for these challenges. Although the Social Democratic Party (SPD) hardly achieved improvements for working people in the grand coalition with the conservative parties aside from the introduction of a porous and too-low minimum wage, union leadership clings tightly to a kind of standstill agreement with the grand coalition. In return for the government refraining from a full-on socio-political assault, the union leadership refrains from unifying political struggles and from political mobilizations against precarious work and corporate withdrawal from labor agreements — let alone from a broader confrontation with neoliberal politics.
In this situation, Die Linke’s task is to push forward debates about the trade unions’ political mandate and become the central force of political change opposing deregulation and precarization. Towards this goal, we are introducing the project for “new normal working conditions” (see Riexinger 2016a) into union discussions. This should help to identify the interests of different class milieus and connect them with one another in solidarity. Against the neoliberal strategy of divide and rule, we seek an alliance between the unemployed, different groups of precarious workers, employees still covered by labor agreements in manufacturing and the public sector — especially the growing number of education, healthcare, and nursing professions — and members of the so-called urban left milieus, meaning mostly higher qualified and younger people.
With this strategy, a whole set of overlapping problems can be taken up, including popular demands for “good work”: collective bargaining agreements with social insurance must again become the norm, and wages must cover living expenses and be adequate for retirement in accordance with dignified living standards. New regulations cannot simply be a return to the old normal working conditions, with rigid, full-time working schedules and life-long employment at one company. Rather, our campaign is a struggle for hegemony from the Left: work must become secure for all people, working hours must be shortened, gender justice must be a priority, and work must be equally shared, self-determined, and democratically co-created (see ibid). Instead of mass unemployment, constant stress, and existential fear, what society needs is the redistribution of work — not least between genders. Our current predicament of overtime and over-exploitation on one side and structural under-employment by way of mini-jobs and involuntary part-time work on the other could be overcome with a new, flexible work regime, centered around a thirty- rather than forty-hour work week.
In contrast to the concept promoted by the SPD and the Greens, which focuses exclusively on flexibilization, ours is concerned primarily with social security through compensatory wage increases, pension hikes, shorter working hours, and the redistribution of productivity gains.
That said, new normal working conditions can only be implemented as part of a transition to another path of social development, which includes the expansion of the public in the direction of social guarantees for quality healthcare, education and care, affordable housing, energy supply, and mobility for all. In light of the deep crisis of the EU, an economic-political change of direction in Germany is immediately necessary. The demand for a radical redistribution of wealth must be an offensive one, just like the demand for the democratic decisions over public investment, which could lead to a broader demand for cooperative property. Through the development of a public future sector, in which both research and development as well as industrial production could be ecologically and democratically developed on the basis of new technologies, in the form of public companies, cooperatives, and collectives, technological innovations could be shaped democratically and with a view towards socially useful objectives. From the radical perspective of a social-ecological, economic democracy, the necessary transformation of industry, energy supply, and mobility is to be connected with steps towards the socialization of economic leadership. These days, such a transformation can hardly occur within the framework of nation states alone.
In the next years, we aim to anchor this initiative for new normal working conditions in the unions. As an initial project, we aim to establish broad coalitions for the reconstruction of the social foundations of our democracy, capable of reaching deep into the Social Democratic base. At the moment, Die Linke is not in a position to win the struggle over hegemony as a whole. Following years of defeat, the trade union movement must first win concrete victories and improvements in living conditions through organizing and social protest. To do this, it is necessary to connect union struggles and engage in political conflict against neoliberal policies. Two potential starting points are conceivable:
1 | The demand for a living wage and a plannable future.
This demand is already shared by very different groups of employees. Recent studies show that as a result of declining pension levels following the Schröder government’s neoliberal pension reforms, wages below €12/hour lead to poverty in old age. Almost every second person who enters retirement beginning in 2030 risks living on a pension below the poverty line. Two-thirds of the population do not trust the grand coalition to reverse this growing avalanche of old-age poverty. Accordingly, the unions plan to make pensions a key issue of the federal election in 2017. Die Linke will intervene in the coming debate over pensions and address the connection between pensions and weak wage growth resulting from precarious employment and many employers’ withdrawal from collective bargaining agreements.
2 | Opposing employers’ withdrawal from collective bargaining agreements.
Whether collective bargaining agreements cover all workers is, at its core, a question of political power. The unions must fight so that they can submit their proposals directly in the future, instead of having to first consult with the capital side, as is currently the case. It must be made illegal for employers to avoid collective bargaining agreements through outsourcing and temporary contracts. The socio-political struggle against precarious work, beginning from branch-specific conflicts such as the retail or logistic sector, could be more effectively conducted from such a perspective.
For a Collective Break with Neoliberalism and Right-Wing Populism
The struggle against precarization and processes of division also has political implications for the fate of the trade union movement. The population’s experiences of unfettered corporate power and everyday insecurity are a breeding ground for right-wing populist and authoritarian forces. A glance across the border at our European neighbors shows that Europe is in a deep and gripping crisis, characterized by the erosion of Social Democracy and, connected to this, the social foundations of democracy itself. The Right has inserted itself into this vacuum of representation left by neoliberalized Social Democracy. For years, studies have shown a relatively widespread dissemination of racist, nationalist, and authoritarian thought patterns within the unions. In the regional elections in March of this year, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) received strong, above-average support from unionists: over 15% of union members in Baden-Württemberg and 24% in Sachsen-Anhalt voted for the AfD, despite the fact that the party actually cultivates a strongly anti-union stance. There is a danger that the Right could succeed in permanently shifting the direction of conflicts over social questions in a racist direction. Many people hardly believe in the possibility of a real redistribution of wealth, and thus differentiate themselves in the everyday struggle for survival over a piece of the “cake,” widely perceived as shrinking, from those “outside” and “below” them — the undeserving poor, lazy immigrants, etc. This fatalism signifies the central weakness of the societal left, namely its inability to bring about gradual changes in common sense and public understanding. Die Linke sees itself in this situation as the organizing power, the connective party of a social alliance against neoliberalism and right-wing populism (see Riexinger 2016b).
The destruction of the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, especially in the Global South, through land-grabbing, the plundering of resources, and the consequences of ecological crisis and war have led to strong waves of migration. Historically, capital has always used migration to sharpen the competition between waged workers and promote divisions within society. It is necessary to lead the struggle for the minds of the union’s social base: to clearly oppose racism and nationalism, while at the same time entering into a jointly organized struggle for equal rights and living conditions.
Together with many active union members and other progressive sections of civil society, we are building a broad alliance against Germany’s rightward drift. This is how the coalition Aufstehen gegen Rassismus (Stand Up Against Racism) emerged, which is currently training ten thousand people to intensify the ideological struggle against the AfD in neighborhoods, schools, associations, and workplaces across the country.
The central challenge for the union movement and Die Linke involves, however, the renewed sharpening of the social question: towards a struggle against the ultra-rich and those who profit from poverty and injustice. Together with unions, social organizations, Attac, migrant organizations, refugee supporters, and antifascist initiatives, we want to put forward a new initiative for the redistribution of wealth, good working conditions, retirement without poverty, good health and hospital care, education, and affordable housing for all people.
Translated by Rob Ogman