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Labor Action, 20 June 1949


V. Jensen

Berlin RR Strikers Reject U.S.
Plan to End Walkout, 6 to 1


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 25, 20 June 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


JUNE 15 – By an overwhelming majority the railway strikers of Berlin voted to reject the compromise proposal to end the strike, despite pressure from their own leaders and from the U.S. commandant, Gen. Howley. The latter had assured the workers that the Russians had given “guarantees” against reprisals.

Although only a 25 per cent Yes vote was necessary to call off the stoppage, not even this could be mustered. The vote was over 6–1 No – 12,626 to 2085.

By this decisive action, the strikers, who are enthusiastically supported by the people of Berlin, simultaneously showed a complete lack of faith in any promises by the Russian occupying power and willingness to resist pressure from the Western camp.

After the vote, Gen. Howley is reported to have remarked that the decision showed “very good sense.” It seems that everything he had told the strikers before the ballot was a lot of hogwash, the Russians double-crossed him, etc., but he hadn’t realized it until after the referendum! Some days before, however, the railway men had jeered at any assurances of Russian good faith.

More than ever, the workers have reason to put more confidence in their own will to fight than in any fair words from either camp of the occupation.

The militant Berlin railway workers’ strike, now in its fourth week, approaches Its stormy climax with the rejection by 600 striking railway union district leaders of an urgent appeal from the executive board of the union that they immediately end the strike.

Refusing to take the responsibility for this move, the local leaders voted instead to submit the compromise settlement plan, guaranteeing 75 per cent of pay in West marks and no Russian reprisal against strikes, arrived at by the Western occupation powers, to a vote by the rank and file of the strikers.

It appears likely now that the rank and file, under extreme pressure of the occupying powers and their own trade-union leaders will accept the compromise plan and that the strike which began in the Western sectors of Berlin at midnight, May 20, is to come to an end early Wednesday morning, June. 15.

The mere fact that the local leaders refuse to take the responsibility of ending the strike on their own say-so is a most dramatic indication of the unfailingly militant mood displayed by the Berlin railway workers throughout the strike. And although the strike will end as a result of top-level negotiations between the Russian and Western occupying powers, it can be chalked up as a most important (if still only partial) victory for the Berlin workers, even though their most important demands have not been met.

It is important to realize that the Russian railway administration has had to make unprecedented concessions to the demands of the striking Western railway workers, and that these concessions are a tribute to the unswerving fighting spirit of the Berlin workers. Equally important (and already commented on in an earlier Labor Action story on the strike) is the blow to the prestige of the Russian occupying power and to the German Stalinists which has been achieved by this strike.

Experienced Strikebreakers

After the violence of the first week of the strike, marked by mass rioting of Berlin Workers in support of the demand of the Western sector railway workers that their wages be paid in West marks instead of in the inflated Eastern sector currency, the Russian administration began strikebreaking tactics with a familiarity bred of long experience.

First they announced that the strike had been settled. They had, they said, signed a contract with the FDGB (Russian-dominated company union in the Eastern zone) providing for the payment of 60 per cent of wages in West marks, which was to be raised by charging West marks for fares in the Western sectors. (Hitherto passengers in the latter sectors had their choice of paying in either East or West marks.)

Since the bulk of the strikers were residents of the Western sector and members of the independent UGO, they naturally did not take this settlement seriously. Nor did they need such evidence as Russian posters offering rewards for the capture of “railway saboteurs” or the Russian sector police’s threats of punishment, up to and including the death penalty for sabotage or acts of violence against railway police, to convince them of the terrible reprisals in store for them if they were to capitulate at this point.

The strike continued in a stalemate, marked by mass violence against the headquarters of the Russian-controlled railway administration. Two hundred strikers mobbed the building, tore down pictures of Stalin and Lenin, and held the building for an hour until dispersed by Western Sector police. Resentment against this interference by the Western police was freely expressed and a police car was overturned by the angry strikers.

Still the Russian authorities refused to negotiate with the UGO, and the UGO refused to back down from its demand of 100 per cent payment in West marks and – most important of all – recognition of their union, either through direct negotiations without reprisal, or indirectly by dividing control of the railways with the Western Allies. (The Russians now control the entire transportation system.)

U.S. Presses Compromise

Finally, the Western occupying powers stepped in. Originally delighted at the blow struck at the Russians by the strike, they supported the demands of the UGO with pious statements of indignation over the Russians’ crimes against the rights of labor. However, the foreign ministers of the Big Four were meeting at Paris, and one of the most important points on the agenda, if not the most important, was trade negotiations between Eastern and Western Germany; there could be no talk of resumption of trade while the railwaymen were striking.

A meeting – the first since June 1948 – of the four occupying military commandants of Berlin was arranged for June 6. But the Russian commander, Major General Kotikov, rejected the suggestion of the Western powers that he negotiate with the UGO on the basis of the offer of 60 per cent payment in West marks. The general merely said that traffic could be resumed at once if Western German police, who had occupied the western Berlin stations at the time of the mass rioting, were withdrawn; and he again charged that the strike had been caused by “saboteurs and provocateurs” having nothing to do with the workers. The meeting broke up and the strike continued.

Some four days later, more urgent instructions arrived from the Big Four Conference. On June 11, Brigadier General Hawley, U.S. commandant, issued his proposed compromise settlement plan on which the strikers are now asked to vote favorably.

Under the terms of this agreement, the Russian railway administration will pay 60 per cent of wages in West marks, this payment to be upped when fare collections permit. Until it can be determined whether fare collections “permit” this raise, the Western magistrat authorizes the exchange of an additional 15 per cent of wages into West marks. The Russian railway administration will also take no reprisals against railwaymen who participated in the strike.

Under this proposed agreement, no mention is made of recognition of the UGO and although General Hawley adds that he “has received special assurance that no arrests or other punitive measures will be taken” against the strikers, the strikers with some experience in working for the Russians are less sure.

Russians Jeered

Although the union leaders rushed to push the proposed settlement, and Ernest Reuter, mayor of Berlin, came to the meeting of the striking railway district leaders to urge them to end the strike so that coal and food could be stockpiled for the winter, the district union leaders therefore refused to end the strike without a membership referendum. They jeered every mention of Russian “guarantees.”

When Ernst Scharnowski, president of the union, stooging for the Western allies, asked them why they weren’t content to accept the Allied guarantees that there would be no Russian reprisals, why they wouldn’t be content at least to test Russian good faith, someone in the jeering audience said, “We will either have been kidnapped or have disappeared.”

Under American pressure, however, the strikers may well feel that they have little choice; with their union leaders backing the proposal, they are likely to vote for. it, under great pressure and with the greatest reluctance. They know as well that if “trade resumption” becomes an overriding question, they might be sold out on this issue by the West as well.

If is a dilemma inherent in the situation of the. occupation. But that too, has been brought home In the course of the strike. One striker said: “If the occupation powers left, we would have no trouble. If all four left, we would have our way.”

In the course of this strike, the Berlin workers have felt their strength. It was they who drove Russian police out of the Western sectors. It was they who forced the initial concessions from the Russian authorities. When they all know what some of them know now, that if “all four left, we would have our way” ... there could be no sellouts. The partial victory of the Berlin railway strikes could become the complete victory of the German working class.

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