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International Socialism, Spring 1966


Volkhard Mosler

The German Trade-Union Movement 1952-1965


From International Socialism, No.24, Spring 1966, pp.10-14.
Translated by Jenny James.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The first part of this article appeared in IS 20, Spring 1965.

1. The Politicisation of the German Trade Unions

After the Second World War, it took several years for the altered class relationships in Germany to be mastered. The process was accompanied, as elsewhere, by considerable strife: the attack of the employers’ associations on joint control, existing on a basis of parity since 1947 in the coal and steel industry, was frustrated by the 1950. strike threat of the DGB (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund = German TUC). However, in spite of demonstrations and token strikes in 1952, it proved possible for the employers to resist the DGB’s demand for an extension of joint control to all big industries. Both the strikes threatened in 1950 and the token strikes of 1952 were of a political nature. The trade unions broke the rules of the game of representative democracy by attempting, as an extra-parliamentary body, to force through parliamentary decisions directly.

At the 1905 Trade Union Congress in Cologne, the Social Democratic trade unions not only decided against the use of the mass strike for political purposes, but even opposed its public discussion. Fifteen years later, the same organisations called for a general strike against the attempted coup d’etat by General Kapp (though on the other hand there was no general strike in 1933!). Since the 1952 conflicts over joint control, the trade unions have engaged themselves several times in wider political battles: against rearmament, in the Kampf dem Atomtod (a predecessor of CND), and most recently against the proposed Emergency Laws.

The relationship between the Social Democratic Party and the trade unions altered accordingly. Before the First World War, the trade unions still paid lip service to socialism – but left the Party totally responsible for it. It was the job of the Party to see to the ‘expropriation of the expropriators.’ After the end of the First World War, the trade unions organisationally detached themselves more and more from the guardianship of the Party, while themselves largely determining the Party’s theoretical and practical approach. The process culminated in the foundation of combined trades unions, formally independent of all parties and denned as the sole representative organisations of the working class.

The changed structure of planned capitalism today has forced all such former ‘private’ social groupings to acquire a political nature.

2. The Politicisation of Society

The emancipation of the middle classes from the mercantile rule of absolutism rendered all middle-class concerns (trade, transport, the family and public life) autonomous and private. The early Marxist assessment of the different tasks of Party and trade unions was based upon the resulting separation of State and Society. It was the task of the Party to bring the class struggle between workers and employers, almost neutralised through being confined to a private sphere, into a public life dominated by the middle class. But to the extent that the organisations of the working class are successful in effectively defending the interests of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie is forced to give up the liberal fiction of laissez faire and to transform its social power directly into political power. The political public is rendered powerless on the one hand, and on the other, it becomes necessary to grant concessions to the increasingly organised proletariat.

Private social power now demands direct public authority.

The process of the substitution of state power for social power is connected with the opposite process of the extension of public authority to private spheres. ... Between the two, and at the same time arising from them, there develops a newly politicised social sphere which does not fit into the category of either “public” or “private”.’ [1]

This ‘newly politicised social sphere’ with the big industrial concerns as its centre is today the field of action of the trade unions between the ‘private’ sphere of the family and the real political sphere.

After the First World War, social and political demands were added to the immediate wage demands of the unions; the unions developed a socialist strategy to complete political democracy with the democratisation of the economy. This strategy involved the extension of nationalisation in important branches of industry, central economic planning, and joint control of industry at factory and national level. All this was to be achieved through trade-union struggle. Marxist and Fabian ideas (of the Webb variety) were fused here into a reformist trade-union strategy connecting the day-to-day struggle with the aim of improving the conditions of the struggle.

The post-1945 trade-union movement once more took up these theories, developed by Naphtali [2] and others. A not unimportant contribution to the 1952 defeat was the reformist distinction between the existing political democracy of formal parliamentary type – which no-one dared to touch – and a democratisation of the economy, still to be realised. The class nature of the whole system was consigned by the theory to the private sphere of society. Likewise the class struggle. Nevertheless, encroachments were made on representative democracy.

Naphtali’s ideas can be found once more in the 1949 Munich programme of the DGB and, in a very watered-down form, in the 1963 Düsseldorf programme. Instead of the 1949 view that joint control necessitates a planned system of common ownership, joint control is now increasingly interpreted as an extension of formal pluralistic democracy into the sphere of the private economy. The latest discussion of joint control in all large concerns, stimulated by a DGB propaganda campaign after the 1965 elections, fits perfectly into this category. Far-reaching joint control with parity for unions and employers would, at best, amount to a system of two-class industrial parliaments which, even if equality were maintained, would make the democratic control of economic processes by the workers improbable.

‘Could not the system of parity ... give a pretext to higher bodies to exercise bureaucratic authority and to grant privileges to groups of representatives? This could lead to new forms of virtually uncontrollable “secret management” by a relatively small number of power holders, who would know how to manipulate elections.’ [3]

3. Re-orientation after the defeat

During the stabilisation of the economy brought about by the Korean boom, there was little chance of success for a radical programme of joint control. The DGB therefore made a change in policy, introduced at the Third Ordinary National Congress, Frankfurt, 1954, by the declaration of an active wages policy and the acceptance of a programme of action. This policy made it clear that even the traditional tasks of trade unions had become political. This was demonstrated in major wage strikes in Hamburg and Bavaria, where the trade unions – to their surprise – came into conflict with the Government, and it was reflected in the aim of Dr Viktor Agartz (then director of the DGB Institute of Economy) that employers should be forced by continuous increases in labour costs to increase the speed of mechanisation and automation (’expanding wages policy’).

In Hamburg, August 1954, gas, water and public transport workers went on strike. A key sector in West German transport was halted for a couple of weeks. Earlier, the Government had decided to refuse any wage increases in public services. The ÖTV (Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union) in Hamburg managed to make a breakthrough. Shortly afterwards, the Post Office and Railway workers were able to settle a new scale of wages. The strike was won in the face of a major national campaign against the ÖTV.

On the other hand, the three-week strike of the metal workers in Bavaria failed. The organisation of the strike did not match up to the political pressure and tactics of the employers. In the three weeks, the strike broke down in several districts. There were clashes between pickets and police. After the strike, hundreds of IG Metall (Metalworkers’ Union) members lost their jobs. Otto Brenner, Chairman of IG Metall, later made the following comments on the strike:

‘... strikes can no longer be conducted according to previous conceptions. This is true for the organisational, ideological and financial aspects. In my opinion there are simply no longer any standards in the past or in the situation before 1933 on which to base our conception of strikes in present-day conditions.’

In 1955, the DGB defined its immediate aims, which were to be attained independently of parliament. The demands included: a 40-hour and 5-day week, levelling wages and salaries, continuation of wage payments during illness for industrial workers (already operative for civil servants and office workers), increased state social security during unemployment, accident, illness and old age, and increased joint control.

In 1954 there were again severe clashes between unions and State. Despite opposition from the DGB executive committee a resolution was passed at the 1954 Frankfurt Congress against German remilitarisation. The DGB EC still refused to undertake any action against rearmament the following year. There was a rebellion of lower and middle union officials. The DGB provincial congresses in Hesse, Bavaria and Rheinland-Pfalz demanded action. In January and February 1955, trade-union demonstrations against rearmament grew in size and number all over the country, and some decisions to strike were taken. Both the SPD (Social Democratic Party) and the DGB leaderships were not prepared at this time to conduct extra-parliamentary political opposition, as was shown by the resistance of the SPD provincial government to demands by the Bavarian DGB for a plebiscite in that province. Finally the DGB and SPD leadership decided to channel the protest. This gave rise to the so-called ‘Paulskirche’ movement, certainly an extra-parliamentary campaign, but ‘moral’ rather than political. Ollenhauer, SPD leader, declared at the opening rally that action must be kept within legal limits. The campaign then petered out without effect. The Paris agreements were passed smoothly by Parliament in February 1955.

About the same time, a protest movement grew up amongst the shop councils in the coal and steel industry of the Ruhr. On 22 January 1955, 800,000 workers took part in a one-hour token strike directed against the undermining of joint control by the growing concentration of interests in the Ruhr industry through the formation of holding companies in which the unions were not represented. A law was then passed in June 1956, which, although it stood by joint control with parity in holding companies, nevertheless introduced a number of changes which amounted to a considerable weakening.

In July 1955, shortly after the unsuccessful revolt against rearmament, the unions suffered fresh defeat through the passing of the ‘Personalvertretungsgesetz’ – a law covering the rights of publicly employed workers which was even worse than the 1952 industrial constitution law. There was no question here of joint control with parity.

The unions themselves were in crisis. Their claim to be the sole legitimate representatives of all workers had become a very questionable claim for white-collar workers. When the industrial unions were founded, the DGB had consciously opposed the formation of craft unions: white-collar workers were to join industrial unions. In 1955, there were 420,540 office workers in the DAG (German Office Workers’ Union) and 517,000 civil servants in the DBB (German Union of Civil Servants). The office workers helped to break the Bavarian metal workers’ strike by negotiating a wage increase with the employers during the strike. In the election of representatives of the office workers’ insurance association in 1953, only 18 per cent of 15 million votes went to the DGB, while 54 per cent went to the DAG. Simultaneously, the Christian minority of the DGB threatened a breakaway. The dismissal of Viktor Agartz in late 1955 was partly a concession to the ‘Christians,’ but also partly an expression of the growing accommodation between the SPD and some trade-union leaders. The trade-union movement lost in Viktor Agartz their best theoretician of the post-war years.

In pursuing its 1955 programme, the DGB exhibited its weaknesses. Power lay in the hands of 16 industrial trade unions and the central DGB organisation had no direct executive power: the ‘expanding wages policy’ remained uncoordinated. The Metal Workers’ Union, the best organised, aimed to prepare the way for other demands, such as reductions in working hours and payment of full wages during illness. Moreover, since the death of Hans Böckler, the true leaders of the trade-union movement would not allow themselves to be elected to the chairmanship of the DGB. Leadership of their own followers was more important to them. Where co-ordinated action was necessary, the bureaucratic leadership proved to be the obstacle for the trade-union movement. This was as obvious in the poor strategy for executing the 1955 programme as it was during the conflicts caused by the 1952 Industrial Constitution Law.

In 1956, the Metal Workers’ Union was the first to secure an agreement on the 45-hour week. In late 1956 32,000 metal workers struck for 16 weeks in Schleswig-Holstein and this was to be one of the longest, hardest and most significant strikes of the post-war period. The Metal Workers’ Union demanded continuation of wage payment during illness for a period of six weeks, additional holiday money, longer holidays, etc. The main issue was sickness benefit, the demand for equality between industrial and office-workers. The strike became so political that the Government finally intervened, but its proposal was rejected against the recommendation of the union leadership by 76 per cent of the strikers. A fresh compromise met with the opposition of only 58 per cent of the strikers. According to union rules, this meant the end of the strike. The law promised by the Chancellor regarding sickness benefit was passed in June 1957. Workers were granted altogether 90 per cent of their wages during the first six weeks of an illness.

This partial victory by the Metal Workers’ Union had a long subsequent history, not ending until 1964 with the introduction of a new system of arbitration between the union and ‘Gesamtmetall,’ the employers’ association. During the strike, the employers had sued the Metal Workers’ Union for violating the 1955 arbitration agreement. In 1958, the National Court of Labour in Kassel made the Metal Workers’ Union liable for damages, estimated at some one hundred million marks! In December 1958, the Metal Workers’ Union appealed on grounds of violation of the Constitution. However both the Kassel verdict and the appeal are cancelled by the new arbitration agreement. The judgement of the Labour Court had, however, made particularly clear how reactionary labour courts in the Federal Republic systematically reduce the trade unions’ sphere of effectiveness.

4. Reform of the SPD

The ‘Campaign against Atomic Death’ brought about a fresh radicalisation of the trade unions and of the SPD. Adenauer’s cabinet, and particularly the new Defence Minister Strauss, demanded publicly at the beginning of 1959, for the first time, that the German armed forces should be equipped with atomic weapons.

In February and March 1958, independent CAAD Committees were set up, encompassing large sections of the civil servants and members of trade unions as well as the youth organisation of the SPD, the young socialists and the ‘Red Falcons’. The movement quickly became the strongest protest movement of the post-war period. According to a poll, 83 per cent of the population opposed arming the forces with atomic weapons. The SPD and the DGB leadership were forced, as in the campaign against rearmament, to place themselves at the head of a mass movement. A month later, on 1 May 1958, the largest demonstrations in the history of the post war German working-class movement took place. Three SPD-governed provinces planned plebiscites which were, however, forbidden by the Federal Constitutional Court.

The Stuttgart SPD Conference of May 1958 showed, however, that for the SPD, leadership of the Campaign had been, nothing but a basis for propaganda. The proposed rightward reform of the Party was the main subject at the Stuttgart Conference. The way was being paved for the same sort of development in the DGB.

5. Discussions on the DGB programme [4]

After the 1956 Congress, preparations had been started within the DGB executive for a new formulation of the principles of economic policy which in 1958-59 were set down in an internal draft for a new programme, consistent with the new economic course of the SPD. The Metal Workers’ Union answered with a rival draft which also remained unpublished. The programme question was not discussed at the DGB Congress in 1959 and the DGB leadership avoided any public argument.

One year after the Godesberg Programme of the SPD brought final victory for the reformists and the party took the final step from being a class party of ‘enlightenment’ to one of integration, the Metal Workers’ Union at its 1960 Berlin congress formulated the principles of its policy without the slightest consideration for the SPD with the result that an open battle for spiritual leadership of the working-class movement between Left-wingers and Godesbergers seemed possible. Many Left-wingers saw such a battle as a possible solution to the stagnation of the working-class movement. But both Right and Left preferred, for different reasons, to compromise, which only delayed, not resolved, the conflict.

The SPD spokesman is the chairman of the Building, Stone and Earth-workers’ Union (IG-Bau, Steine u. Erden), Georg Leber. Characteristic of his union policy are demands like: special concessions for workers in the union, and a union-employer commission for better co-operation between these ‘social partners.’ He sees the trade union as a State-supporting institution bearing the political responsibilities which this involves. There is no mention of the class struggle as a structural antagonism. The Left, however, in the Metal Workers’, Chemical Workers’ and Printing and Paper Unions, insists on the necessity of a basic change in society, and Otto Brenner’s critique of the 1951 law on joint control and the 1952 Constitution Law is based on the theory of a class society.

A compromise between the two wings was made possible by a change in tactics of the Metal Workers’ Union at their 1962 Essen Conference. A pure socialist trade-union programme could only have been carried out in open conflict with the DGB Executive, the SPD and middle-class public opinion. The denationalisation of the Volkswagen works had been a sign of the change in class relationships, even if the political balance within the DGB itself indicated that the time was, perhaps, not yet ripe for a purely social reformist programme. The debate on the Emergency Laws at the 1962 DGB annual congress in Hanover demonstrated this.

The chairmen of the Railwaymen’s, Mining and Power Workers’, Post Office Workers’, and Teachers’ and Scientists’ Unions tried to win over delegates to the social democratic line on the Emergency Laws, [5] (critical acceptance of the Laws). The Metal Workers’ Union was supported by delegates from the Chemical Workers’ Union, the ÖTV (Transport and Public Services) and the Food and Entertainment Workers’ and Publicans’ Unions. A secret ballot proposed by Leber resulted in a two-thirds majority for the IG Metall resolution. There were also considerable changes made in the draft programme in favour of the socialists but it was adjourned for one year. Every point of the final draft is formulated in the vague fashion appropriate to a compromise and it can therefore be interpreted at pleasure. It is completely useless to either side as a practical or theoretical basis. An expression of this fact was that, shortly afterwards, a new Programme of Action was formulated and made public in 1965. The basic demands of the programme are: 40-hour week (eight-hour day and five-day week), a redistribution of wealth, four weeks holiday per year with additional holiday pay, security of employment, compensation for automation, reduction in the pensionable age from 65 to 60, better tenants’ protection, joint control at the place of work, equal chances of education, etc. The achievement of even one of these goals could hardly come about on the basis of ‘social partnership.’

In the economic and political section of the Basic Programme, a demand for the nationalisation of raw material industries accompanies one for the extension of private enterprise. The few attacks made by both extreme left-wingers and Leber were indignantly rejected as attacks on a hard-won compromise. Opposition to the Emergency Laws was carried this time against only 20 votes.

A comparison with the 1949 Munich programme shows that basic elements of a social reformist and ‘partnership’ union policy have penetrated into the Basic Programme. The full aim of the ‘Godesberg SPD’ to align the trade unions with them must, however, be considered initially to have failed. There are undoubtedly anti-capitalist forces in the great industrial unions which are not prepared to follow the SPD anywhere. A settlement either to the Left or to the Right in the industrial unions is possible only in three or four cases and even in these unions there is conflict (for example, Leber has been attacked within his own union for his support of the Emergency Laws). The wages policy of the Textile Workers’ Union and its demands for joint control and an improvement in the Federal Constitution Court are objectively progressive, although in this union in particular, there are strong tendencies towards Leberism.

The big spring 1963 strike of metal workers in Baden-Württemberg gave the reformists no encouragement. Given general prosperity, West German wages to the beginning of the ‘60s rose more rapidly than those of other West European countries, and struggle to achieve this was, relatively, seldom necessary. Since 1961, the trade balance has become less favourable, rendering dangerous any compensation of wage increases by price-raising. Given also the chronic labour shortage (despite 1.3 million immigrant workers), the situation was never so favourable for the unions as now, even though there has been an increase in the tendency to State intervention. During the strike not only the employers but also the Chairman of the CDU (Christian Democratic Party), Dufhues, demanded a ‘labour peace law’ after the US Taft-Hartley Law (not to mention the Emergency Law by which all strikes were made illegal). [6] When the 100,000 metal workers stopped work, the employers’ associations answered with a general lock-out in all metal-working plants in the area (350,000 workers). It was shown yet again that today every wage-strike is also political. The compromise reached came through the mediation of the Minister for Economic Affairs, Dr Erhard.

Whether there will be a further weakening of the trade-union Left depends on which union policy turns out to show the best results in terms of recruitment, etc. In this connection mention should be made of the efforts of IG Chemie and IG Metall to create a closer relationship with their members by pursuing a union policy suited to the conditions within each individual plant, and by increasing the number of shop stewards to supplement the works councils. [7] These two unions are doing this to provide the prerequisites for a successful wages policy and also to ensure that democracy is maintained within the unions. They have recognised that the maintenance and extension of union democracy is the basis for the continued existence of class conscious trade-union committees. It is no coincidence that the Building, Stone and Earth Workers’ Union has the most authoritarian organisational structure in the DGB, and the fact that any attempts to ‘bring the trade unions into line’ have failed up to now is due to the democratic structure of the DGB and the industrial unions – that is, in comparison with the authoritarian, centralised structure of the SPD. Attempts by the Building Workers’ Union to acquire material advantage just for union members mean denial of equality and solidarity in union action. The split between organised and unorganised workers can only increase by this policy. The hope of the socialists is that the policy of the Left-wing unions will in the long run also be the more effective policy for the movement in general. The very favourable boom-situation in the building industry up to now has helped to veil the real situation. On the other hand, it has become clear that the Leber-type policy cannot be taken over as it is by other branches of industry (for example the textile industry).

6. Conclusions

The tendency towards integration of the unions into the political system of organised capitalism, resulting from State intervention induced and propelled by the unions themeslves, and which existed in the days of the Weimar Republic, has continued in a stronger form in the Federal Republic. Union representatives sit on the councils and commissions of several Ministries, on the radio and television councils, on the boards of directors of all big industrial enterprises; they make nominations for the Social and Labour Courts. The principle of autonomy [8] as practiced in the labour exchanges, in the sickness and social benefit institutions, etc, has changed the structure of government and helped to transform the employers’ associations and trade unions into component parts of the political system.

In negotiations with the administration, the unions: are obviously unequal in competition with their class opponents. The chances that this process of inequality in political decision-taking will be recognised by the unions increase objectively with the growing politicisation of society. (The old argument whether socialist consciousness could form within the trade unions thus becomes pointless.)

In West Germany, this process of recognition meets with double resistance. First, as in other monopolistic capitalist States, the politicisation of a formerly private society has led simultaneously to a change in the function of the middle-class public and its instruments, the mass media and the parties, and has rendered them powerless. Once organs of discussion and information, these have now been moulded into weapons of manipulation. Those who have possession of these instruments are those who hold social power. This means, however, that the process of politicisation of society simultaneously brings about the de-politicisation of its members. The ideological screen of the system, which in reality becomes increasingly thin, is re-manufactured in a different way through extensive manipulation. The democratisation of the mass media is, therefore, perhaps the most pressing problem facing trade unions and socialists today.

Second, with the change in function of the SPD into an instrument of authority, the trade unions in West Germany are faced with the problem that they no longer have political representation to defend their interests in Parliament. They need this representation as long as, through the maintenance of the liberal constitutional state, society continues to be treated formally as a phenomenon existing independently of the State. This has been shown by the campaign against the Emergency Laws. When the Emergency Laws were to be passed shortly before the elections in the summer of 1965, the DGB managed, under the cover of the forthcoming elections, to persuade the SPD to say ‘No’ for the time being. But elections are not always just round the corner. The critical section of the trade-union movement is, therefore, faced with the task of creating a political platform for itself. Just as democratisation of the monopolistic mass media cannot be achieved simply by attempting to set up external competition, the creation of a political platform can be attained only through existing institutions, that is, the SPD. The fact that only parties which receive more than five per cent of all votes may enter Parliament, and also the financial and organisational impossibility of forming an even marginally competitive apparatus, makes failure of any newly-formed party practically inevitable, particularly as Left-wing trade unions, owing to the nature of the combined industrial trades unions, can act in the political parties only as individuals and not as organisations.

The coming conflicts concerning the Emergency Laws – if they are not, as is possible, avoided entirely – could prepare the first step towards the future creation of a trade-union wing within the SPD.

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1. Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, Neuwied 1962, p.159.

2. See Wirtschaftsdemokratie, ihr Wesen, Weg and Ziel, Berlin 1939 (actually 1926 – ETOL), edited by Fritz Naphtali at the request of the Allgemeine Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (the Social Democratic TUC). Leading trade unionists were on the editorial board, amongst them, Dr Rudolf Hilferding.

3. Irene von Reitzenstein, Solidarität und Gleichheit, Ordnungsvorstellungen im deutschen Gcwerkschaftsdenken nach 1945, Berlin 1961, p.207.

4. Information is taken from an article by Professor Peter von Oertzen, Wo steht der DGB? – an analysis of the present situation in the trade unions, published in Arbeitshefte, February 1964.

5. See Reiner Diederich, The West German Emergency Laws, IS 22, Autumn 1965.

6. A good summary of the tendencies leading to a restriction of the right to strike in West Germany is made by Jürgen Seifert in International Socialist Journal, January/February 1964.

7. The works councils are officially independent of the unions and elected directly by the whole staff of a factory. The 1952 Industrial Constitution Law imposes on the works councils an ambiguous role which, unavoidably, either brings them continually into conflict with the management or renders their task of representing the interests of the employees impossible. Paragraph 49 of the Law states: ‘Management and staff are to work together in the interests of the industry and its employees and in consideration of the common good.’ The same paragraph also says that the works council may neither call for a strike nor participate in one. Members of the works councils are to some degree released from the obligation to work.

8. These autonomous bodies are run by managers and workers together, or by the relevant social group (farmers, craftsmen, etc.). In the majority, membership is on a footing of parity. Only the miners’ sickness benefit institution has a two-thirds majority of the seats occupied by workers. Legally, some delegated state administrative authority has been granted to these bodies.

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