Fritz Heckert

The Labor Movement

The German Trade Unions
from Nürnberg to Leipzig

(1 September 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 75, 1 September 1922, pp. 561–563.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

I. From Nürnberg to Halle

If we stop to survey the period of the German trade union movement between the two trade-union congresses at Nürnberg in 1919 and at Leipzig in 1922. we note a development that is of great importance to the trade union movement throughout the world.

In the early summer of 1919, the German Revolution had again shaken both the whole state organism and the economic structure of the country. Large sections of German labor were of the opinion that by immediate direct action they could shift both the economic and political balance of power. And especially the battles carried on under the direct supervision of the shop stewards, without the workers referring the matter to the union officials, gave rise to the opinion that the tendencies working for revolutionary activity of the German trade unions (instead of the reformist attitude) would soon gain the upper hand. The social-patriotic, reformist attitude of the trade union officialdom and the complete abandonment of the principles of class struggle during the war and the first months of the revolution, had combined to create a sharp, rapidly growing opposition. Nearly two fifths of all delegates to the Nürnberg trade-union congress were radical elements believing that they had the backing of the majority of organized labor and that only by employing devious tricks could the bureaucracy secure for itself a nominal majority.

The central problem, labor industrial truce or class struggle, was already more or less clearly formulated, in Nürnberg. Many workers had been sorely disappointed by the truce policy during the war, and by its peace edition, – the policy of collaboration. They were determined that labor’s organized forces, the trade-unions, be employed for creating guarantees safeguarding labor against any renewal of the economic and political dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The trade-unions had assumed formidable proportions; they comprised then 5,400,000 workers, and were adding tens of thousands every week to their membership.

This rapidly growing mass of organized workers brought two tendencies into the trade union movement. First, that of making the shop steward committees into militant organs of the workers, and secondly, that of reshaping, the craft unions into industrial unions, which were considered better weapons in the tremendous economic struggles. Even if the revolutionary wing of the trade union movement did not carry the day at the Nürnberg Congress, there was reason to hope that the final victory would only be a matter of months. The majority of the 191 opposition delegates belonged politically to the Independent Social Democratic Party (USP); only 7 were members of the Communist Party. The USP was at that time developing towards the left, a strong mass party counting its adherents chiefly among the industrial proletariat.

The following year witnessed the increase of the total trade union membership to 7,890,000. But the revolutionary spirit did not keep pace with this growth. And although the general trade union opposition gained another victory at the metal workers’ congress (in the summer of that year, when the oppostion led by the USP. gained the majority and thus the union) there was no gainsaying the fact that the reactionary attitude of the trade-union bureaucracy was not effected by the penetration into it of the opposition. Rather the opposite took place. A part of the metal workers’ opposition, which under the slogan, Against Collaboration and for the Class Struggle had carried on the fight for the union, fell down on its slogan and at the shop-stewards’ congress, in October, we saw the Independent metal workers’ leader, Dissmann, fight the resolute opposition side by side with that hardened reformist, Legien. Prior to that congress, the whole opposition had considered the shop steward committees as independent factors and cooperators in the economic struggles of the workers, but the congress itself sealed the fate of the Committees and subordinated them to the trade union bureaucracy as its auxiliary organs. The split within the opposition and the march of the opposition bureaucracy towards the Right and into the Legien camp, coincided with the split of the USP and the fusion of its left wing with the Communist Party.

II. The Victory of the Trade Union Bureaucracy. Its Achievements

The split of the opposition resulted for the time being, in a strengthening of the reformist ADGB. (General German Trade Union Federation) bureaucracy, and in a weakening of the revolutionary struggle in the trade unions. The opposition had to regain its bearings and to reconsider its aims and tasks; it recognized the urgency of close unity everywhere, and fully grasped the fact that a long-drawn and embittered struggle for the sympathies of the membership would have to precede any attempt at compelling the reformist bureaucracy to retire from their position. The opposition nuclei forming everywhere in the trade unions soon became the target of the trade union leaders, who launched a savage campaign against the opposition groups, the chief weapon being the expulsion of the opposition leaders from the trade unions. The reformist bureaucracy fully believed that by this policy of persecution and expulsion they could stamp out the opposition and thus render their own position impregnable. Brutal measures were employed especially by the officials of the builders’, railwaymen’s and agricultural workers’ unions. The latter did not even desist from disrupting the organization in large districts, as long as the opposition was crushed thereby.

The situation which the trade-union bureaucracy was landed into by its policy of collaboration, compels it to fight the opposition. No matter what it does or thinks, its foremost aim is to avoid serious conflicts with the bourgeoisie. Out of such considerations it accepted the terms of the Versailles Treaty and pledged itself to exert all its energy for their fulfilment. And just as it submitted to the bourgeoisie in matters of foreign policy, it abandoned at home all the demands of the workers, whenever it became apparent that the bourgeoisie was seriously determined to fight.

Germany’s economic collapse and the subsequent political convulsions, often gave the bureaucracy opportunity to parade as labor’s leader. The first of these was the Kapp-Putsch. When the working class had crushed the rebellious military camarilla, ana was getting ready to grasp the fruits of victory, the ADGB concluded with the government and the counter-revolution the widely known Bielefeld Agreement, pledging itself to use all its forces to break off the victorious struggle of labor. The latter was told that the ADGB guaranteed the fulfillment of the 8 points of the agreement which would provide a real protection for the workers. After the workers were once disarmed, however, the ADGB never dreamt of redeeming its promises to labor.

The same tactics were employed by the ADGB in the struggle carried on by the unemployed to secure their existence in spring 1921. In order to prevent a serious movement, the ADGB formulated ten demands, not one of which was ever complied with. In the autumn of the same year, the mark had sunk to such depths as to endanger seriously the standard of living of the German worker. Again the ADGB entered the political arena with a new series of ten demands coupled with the declaration that unless these demands were complied with, both labor and the economic household would be ruined completely. The first of these demands was the confiscation of 25 per cent of all gold values. The working class, which put its trust into the ADGB, was again sorely disappointed, for nothing whatever was done to enforce those demands.

But the policy of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, which the ADGB refused to abandon, and which had compelled it to sabotage the Bielefeld Agreement, the unemployment demands and the demand for the confiscation of 25 per cent of all gold values, was also at the bottom of its cynical betrayal of the railway officials in the Spring of 1922, and its union with all those who openly advocated the use of armed force against the railwaymen whom unbearable economic pressure had forced to strike. The betrayal of the struggling workers was so base and so enraged the workers, that their spirit of solidarity urged them to side with the strikers and they rebelled against the ADGB.

The ADGB’s policy of cooperation roused great indignation in the ranks of organized labor. This indignation is unfortunately being expressed by the workers turning their backs on trade unions. The number of organized workers has decreased considerably, during 1921, and the tendency to leave the trade unions is still prevalent. The reason for this, as advanced by the ADGB, was that hundreds of thousands of newly organized members being slow to grasp the advantages of trade unions, had left dissatisfied, while others had been repelled by the inciting activities of the Communists. A third reason given for the decrease is the bad economic situation.

To all of which we have the following reply. Firstly unemployment is practically negligible in Germany today; there is even less of it than before the war; such periods have always been noted as favorable for organization. Secondly, wherever and whenever Communist work was successful in the trade unions, there was the least decrease of membership to be noted. Thirdly, the decrease of membership is proportionate to the increase of the aggressiveness of the bourgeoisie, the partner of the trade union bureaucracy. This is made quite clear by the market decrease after the assassination of Rathenau, when the trade union bureaucracy, by steering into shallow waters the struggle against the reaction, which the workers had taken up with so much energy, became a party to the resurrection of reaction.

In all other economic and social questions, the reformist trade union leaders have also failed miserably. In order to preserve cooperation, they yielded to the employers in the matter of the workers’ rights and social institutions, and were even in part ready to sacrifice the eight-hour day. The shop steward committees have been shorn of their power to a greater extent than even the employers had intended to.

III. The Leipzig Trade Union Congress and Our Prospects

At the trade union congress in Leipzig, the ADGB had to account for its policy, and German organized labor has drawn the conclusions. Wherever the opposition secured a footing it routed the reformist collaborators. Even if only 90 of the 700 delegates at the congress belonged to the Communist opposition, there can be no doubt that these 90 had the backing of 35 to 40 per cent of German organized labor. Only by various manipulations did the bureaucracy succeed in securing a big majority. But although the opposition at Nürnberg had reason to hope that victory would be theirs, and the old bureaucracy had to prepare for the worst, the latter was nevertheless better able to defend itself and to maintain its position in Nürnberg than in Leipzig, where the managing committee of the ADGB, in spite of its SPD majority, was defeated on all points. Only in mere routine matters could the bureaucracy count on the support of the majority; in the voting on the questions of collaboration, industrial unions, and other important matters, the majority was either against the ADGB or it was so composed as to render the continuation of the old policy impossible.

During the last three years, Germany’s economic situation has been growing from bad to worse, and even the most backward workers are beginning to understand that collaboration, leads to abject misery, and that other ways and means must be found to safeguard labor’s existence.

Prompted by these and similar considerations, the organized workers are massing on the left, confiding more and more in the Communist leaders and refusing to tolerate any longer the persecution of Communists.

The ADGB has learned nothing whatever since Nürnberg. In the days of labor’s direst privation it was still aiding the bourgeoisie, and no outbursts of indignation on the part of the membership could move it to abandon that policy. Having sacrificed its demands after the Rathenau murder, it now steps forth and declares boldly; our principal task is to oppose the Communists. This, in a period of capitalist aggression, at a time when the sudden rise of prices, when reaction rears its head once more! The next few months will convince the ADGB that the workers have other matters to look after: to organize themselves against the bourgeoisie and all those in league with it. The campaign against the Communist opposition will end with the defeat of the trade union bureaucracy. That is the balance of Leipzig!

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