"Wildcat" strikes in Germany : revival of the class struggle in the heart of Europe

On the 14th of October, 9600 workers of the Opel plant in Bochum (Germany) started spontaneously a wildcat strike. This strike did not last a long time, about 8 days, but it is full of lessons.

It happened immediately after the announcement, by General Motor, of a suppression plan of 12000 jobs in Europe, including 10000 in its German subsidiary company Opel. The plant of Bochum was particularly concerned with 4000 jobs threatened of disappearance on the 9600 of the site.

In a context of pressures of all kinds exerted on the whole workers in Europe : attacks on the retirement pensions, lowering wages, increases in working time, the outlines of a social response were already perceptible concretely in Germany. On last July, a movement of large scope developed at Daimler–Benz while the "Monday demonstrations", initiated mainly by the unemployed workers, connected against the Hartz IV Plan which intends to erase those who refuse the precarious jobs. Today [october 29th], it is the workers of the car industry, Opel of course but also Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz-Mercedes, who occupy the social ground. The riposte the workers of Opel have engaged themselves in, settles on very concrete facts : during the four last years, their purchasing power has been cut off by 19%. This sacrifice of a part of their wage had been negotiated, in their name, by the union IG Metall and accepted, at that time, as the condition to preserve the jobs in the future and to assure the competitiveness of the car sector ! !

Bochum is situated in an industrial area already particularly devastated : after the successive closures of, firstly, the coal mines, then these of steel-works, this new blow carried against the Opel workers encountered immediately the anger and a strong combativeness of the employees.

The anger, the accumulated experience of the previous sacrifices, consented in the name of the "economic competitiveness" but always insufficient, the union politics postponing the struggle to the future to the benefit of sacrifices, looking forward for better days, these elements explain the determination of the workers to take the struggle in their own hands

The first spontaneous work stops intervened in the morning of Thursday October 14 and managed to paralyze the majority of the assembly lines the very afternoon. At that time, it is the daily general assemblies (it seems, according to news which did filter, that, responding to the struggle needs, several General Assemblies [GA] were held in the course of the day) which were deciding the continuation of the strike every day : "the strike is renewed from team to team, the workers arrives at the factory, discusses and votes to continue the strike " (1). The practice of the GA discussions "with open microphone" is adopted and taken back from the "Monday demonstrations".

Several hundreds of strikers, their families, the workers of others firms take turns at the door of the plant, including during the weekly closing of the factory, and comment on the strike. The workers organize, discuss and take decisions for the control of that one. Right from the start the concern to extend the struggle is posed - we do not say solved - at the geographical level in and around Bochum.

But the more significant in this struggle is the position adopted by the workers in front of and against the powerful Union IG Metall, a power that envy as well the European trade unions and the governments.

Extremely rare fact in Germany, the workers passed over the usual and current protocol, traditionally respected, which initially consists in the opening of negotiations (representative trade union, employers), then with a formal call to the strike by the trade union of branch, followed by a consultation of the personnel on the movement; the strike intervenes only as an ultimate mean of pressure. The right to strike is thus strictly regulated there, the strikes are naturally "trade-union" ones, intervening only in the event of difficulties during the negotiations of the collective agreements.

By going on strike without the IG Metall notice, without even having consulted it first, by starting the strike and by continuing it according to methods which they decided in general assemblies, the employees of Opel-Bochum ignored the legal protocol and broke the taboo of these usually respected trade-union traditions.

That underlines the determination of the workers since, under these conditions, the strikers receive neither wages nor allowance of strike on behalf of the trade union ; they are quite simply "out of law".

One has to go back to 1973, and the struggle of the miners and steel workers, to find those characteristics of immediate spontaneity and of wildcat strike in Germany. But here moreover, to be able to engage the struggle, the workers are immediately obliged to oppose the trade unions, to draw them aside and to fight them.

The trade union IG Metall called for "moderation" and condemned, in fact, the wildcat strike that it did not control the dynamic ; B. Huber, vice-president of IG Metall, recommended a "return to more ordered conditions of work on Monday, if not we will not be able to negotiate efficiently with GM". For their part, the leftists and the radical unionists were, of course, present in this struggle. They pushed to the extension … in the Opel plants in other countries of Europe. That means they pushed to the extension inside the corporation while the dynamic was towards geographicl solidarity and extension around the city of Bochum. In one case, obviously it meant giving up the struggle and extension organization in the hands of the Unions. In the other case it was pushing towards the organization of the extension by the workers themselves, and towards their preservation of the control of the strike. Even if the struggle lasted only a little time, the line of fracture, of opposition, between two orientations in the very bosom of the strike was thus clear between the unionism on one side and the needs of the struggle on the other.

To that were added the threats of the direction which, from the very beginning, declared that it planed to close the factory immediately if the work was not to start again at once. As the workers declared explicitly that they "push back these provocations" the direction intented to intimidate by threatening to lay off "the leaders of the wildcat strike"

"Those who attack one among us will have to deal with all of us" retorted the workers. Because the stake of this struggle were clearly perceived, the workers knew and declared : "it is not a crisis of GM or Opel, it's a pitiless struggle for the sharing of the international market between the various car manufacturer, which is in no case a specificity of Opel". In other words the job cuts are not reserved for Opel or General Motors. Indeed, they are nothing but the result of the bitter competition in which the various economic powers are engaged, expression of the commercial war between nations, in that case, between the USA and Europe.

The "end of the strike" left a promising atmosphere for new movements to come. The workers of the site of Bochum have voted for the return to work by 4650 votes against 1760, after 8 days of uninterrupted wildcat strike and after the trades unions put all their forces in the battle to sabotage the struggle and to impose this return to work. Indeed, during the meeting organized by the leaders of IG Metall outside the plant and devoted to rule the continuation or not of the strike, only the secretary of the "enterprise comity"2 of Opel and the leader of IG Metall could speak. Then, the microphones were cut when the workers stood up to go speaking in their turn. The vote was immediately proposed, with secret ballot, responding to a question thus formulated : "Is it necessary that the union delegates of the EC (see note 2, above) continue to negotiate with the direction and that the work starts again ?" (reported by the correspondent of Lutte Ouvrière [French trotkyst group] – October 29th 2004).

This return to work has been facilitated by the lack of perspective, of political and struggle orientation. On the one hand, the negotiations of IG Metall with the direction and the government, on the other the extension of the struggle without real contents, without control, to the Opel factories in Europe, within the corporation. The perspective of extension and generalization of the struggle, starting from Bochum, geographically and towards factories of various companies, amongst various corporations, which was present the first days was the stake of the demonstration of Tuesday 19 of October in Bochum, called by the Unions. For them, it was a question of swamping and losing, in a big "mass", the solidarity willingness expressed by the workers of Bochum and of the area, in various firms and factories. For the workers, the stake was to mobilize themselves so as to transform this "Day of action" and this demonstration into a springboard for the development of the struggle. Force is to note that the working class couldn't go beyond.

Nevertheless, it was a first true skirmish. It announces the workers struggles to come and it expresses the determination of the workers. "In any way, we are ready to start again !", such was the state of mind the day after this vote by the workers of Opel. As well the strikers as many workers of the others firms have acquired the certainty that they cannot accept everything, that they can manage to make themselves feared ; the lessons of that struggle are now very discussed. The more so as the direction has just commit to postpone the expiry of a stronger attack for a short time; the forecasted job cuts will be made "socially bearable" (!) and the production sites will be maintained in Germany … "in exchange for cost cuts" ! ! But this lesson, this experience goes largely beyond the only workers of Opel. It's all the German working class, and even more, who felt concerned.

Argentina 2001, France - spring 2003 -, Great Britain then Italy - autumn 2003 -..... Germany 2004, the working class revival is confirmed

In its bulletin, our fraction has recalled to which point the conjunction between the economic crisis, the war and the class struggle opened a new situation for the rising generations of workers. "If it is impossible to distinguish, amongst the measures taken against the working class, which concern the consequences of the economic crisis and what concern the warlike preparation, on the other hand one can affirm that the two causes are added and that they will constitute more and more a factor of consciousness for the workers and an unbypassable axis of intervention for the revolutionary minorities" (Bulletin 22, December 2003)

We have shown several times, and analysed the obvious signs of a revival of the class struggle in the heart of Europe, after fifteen years of retreat and of social quietness, through the various struggles which followed one another since 2001 (see, amongst others, the bulletin 23, February 2004, The international revival of the workers struggles and The question of the form of organisation of the workers struggle).

We also highlighted the common characteristics of this revival of the workers struggles in relation with the context in which they are held (3).

The struggle of the workers of Opel, in Germany, situated in direct line, as a continuation of the struggles of 2001-2002 in Argentina which announced the revival of the class struggle on an international level, then, those of the spring 2003 in France, those of the Post Office workers in Great Britain, of the workers of the urban transportation in Italy, at the end of 2003. It comes to bring an additional lighting in the confirmation of that revival.

1. This succession of struggles coexists with a worsening of the warlike process and with a tendency to the polarization around two imperialist poles : USA and Germano-French ; the struggles of spring 2003 in France followed at once the great pacifist demonstrations. In Great Britain as in Italy, countries whose states are militarily implied in the intervention and occupation of Iraq, the workers tend to break with national unity, that one tries to impose them, and to defend their own interests. "This tendency to the concrete rejection, actually of the national unity in a period of military intervention is a first element, an important one, which already gives an indication of the process which is under way within the international working class, of the present dynamic in the situation" (Bulletin 23, already quoted)

2. We also noticed a strong combativeness in the fact that these strikes start, for most of them, outside of any trade-union instruction and even against these trade-unions which make all they can to temporise and to push away the expiry of the strikes. In France, the teachers demonstrations which employees of other sectors (post office, hospital employees, agents of the tax administration, workers of the culture sector and of some private ones, etc.) joined and actively participated to, disputed the lead of the demonstrations to the trade-unions while interprofessional assemblies were held outside and against the unions. In Great Britain, the strike of the Post Office workers bursted against the trade unions statements which had pushed away the eventuality of a strike. In Italy, they were strikes without notices which paralyze the main cities (Milano, Bologna, etc.) at the end of 2003.

In Germany this same characteristic can be found in the fact that the workers of Opel launched out in the struggle as soon as they heard the advertisement of the lays-off, without referring to the unions about it and even against their recommendation of "avoiding that the situation grows bitter".

3. In the same way as the employees in Great Britain and in Italy had to take in their hands the direction and the organization of the struggle , to pass over the already signed union agreements and the laws regulating the strikes (respect of a "minimum service" ridiculed by the Italian urban transportation workers) the employees of Opel present the trade unions and the direction with a fait accompli to have to re-examine their copy by which they had negotiated lays-off and factories closing down. They showed that the struggle on their own terrain cannot manage with the laws and regulations of the bourgeois State.

4. The need to spread immediately the struggle, specifically on the geographical level and to others sectors, can be found back in the heart of the most significant movements of the present period. It has been raised and expressed in France, in Great Britain and, still more precisely, in the course of the struggle of the transportation workers in Italy, by the ability of various sectors of the working class to recognize themselves in the struggle of a sector more specifically in the forefront. This same preoccupation can be found in the struggle of the Opel workers.

A whole trade-union agitation took place around October 19th, moment declared as a major issue for "a vast international day of struggle for all the GM employees". The trade unions sabotaged preventively any real possibility of extension.

Even if, alongside the workers of Opel in Bochum, a lot of employees of the neighbouring companies, specifically some delegations of workers of Porsche, Volkswagen and also some miners, came to discuss and have participated to the October 19th demonstration, the question of the extension of the movement has been only posed in an embryonic way, or in the form of a search for extension primarily in the car sector; i.e. within the same corporation.

All the leftists and radical unionists threw themselves on the need of immediate extension of the struggle and they were quite ready to overbid, but provided that the struggle remained within the reasonable, realistic framework of the sector. This limitation is a poison for the real extension in a context where the attacks concern the whole workers, especially in the way that there is no longer efficient response without the association with no limit of a maximum of workers into the struggle. To cross over the border of the sector, to associate all the workers to the struggle, unemployed, the geographically closer ones, outside the limits of the factory, that is the question which the struggles are confronted to in the present period. Their broadest possible coordination so that to concentrate the forces as far as possible, is becoming the real stake, the priority in the present struggles.

All these common characteristics, in a more or less acute way, to all the present workers struggles, the persistence of the mobilization, confirmed today by the struggles of the workers in Germany, in the heart of Europe, the jerky aspect of these movements "made of advances and retreat, of moments of intensive mobilization and then of relative set up, before they suddenly rebound", all that remind with no possible contest an historic situation that Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionaries of her time analyzed as the premises of the mass strike. We are only at its beginning but each step is important.

The stake of the current combats : to oppose a massive front of struggle against the bourgeoisie

We have entered a period of massive and head-on attacks against the whole proletariat. Those fall down with no respite, pause, in all Europe, specifically :

1. Massive attacks, it means heavy, questionning the very survival of all the workers :

- unprecedented increase of the work time by acting on several plans, at the same time by a postponement of the retirement age, by an increase of the weekly work schedules (under the pretext of the "adjustment" of the 35 hours a week this one is revisited on the benefit of 38, 40 hours through the increase of unpaid overtime) by the introduction of an hunting down of the pauses time (which provoked the outset of the struggle by the workers of Daimler-Benz last summer) ;

- massive lays-off. Firstly, the number of "plans of dismissals" is in a constant increase. But, furthermore, it's no longer a few hundred of jobs which are suppressed in an isolated way, it's now every time by thousands and tens of thousands that capitalism ejects the workers in the four corners of the planet under the pretext of the "restructuring of the industry web". These waves of massive dismissals impose a parallel with the years of acute crisis of capitalism when entire sectors were liquidated : coal mines, metallurgy, steel industry, and during which one talk about "modernisation", of "adaptation", hard but necessary, to win back a prosperity for the benefit of the greatest number ;

- at last, on all the European continent, the wages are the target of an unprecedented attack.

2. Frontal attacks, it means which touch, without exception, all the proletarians. Wage earners of all the sectors, of all categories, unemployed, precarious workers, retired workers, all are directly, immediately and daily concerned by the avalanche of measures adopted by all the States, without exception. The example of Opel-Bochum is significant : in this city today essentially depending on the car industry, after it had depended of the mines of the Ruhr, then on the heavy metallurgy which have today disappeared, they are not only the wage earners of Opel but their families, the unemployed workers, the employees of the subcontractors factories of the area who are immediately touched. On the 400 000 inhabitants, 12% are already unemployed. If the project of suppressing 4 000 jobs at Opel was to be driven to an end, it would have as a consequence the suppression of 30 000 employment in this city, to added to the 4 000 first ones. It is also what explains why families, unemployed, miners, employees of other companies, went immediately at the doors of the factory to give assistance to the strikers since the advertisement of the first work stops ; it is also the reason of the imposing and compact character of the street demonstrations.

Those two elements, massive and frontal attacks, are a powerful factor for the extension and the concentration of the workers forces in a same struggle, opposing proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Through this first struggles, the working class faces up

The struggle of the employees of Opel is far from being an isolate case. Everywhere, movements more or less controlled by the trade unions take place simultaneously in the heart of Europe and beyond.

In Russia, more than 100 000 people participate at demonstrations on October 20. In Moscow where teachers, employees of the health and of the culture sectors were on strike, the demonstration was massive. Those employees asserted a wage increase of 30% instead of 20% planned in the budget (the average monthly wage of the teachers in Moscow is around 100 dollars).

In Italy, isolated days of strikes took place in the urban transportation, the same "tramway workers" who had launched out in illegal action in 2003, thus showing they didn't go back to work defeated, and even less demoralized but, on the contrary, that the determination and the combativeness are brought to persist durably after the episodes of struggle.

.In the Netherlands, where a regional strike took place on last September 20 in Rotterdam, gathering side by side dockers (opposing the "trade unions passivity" ; AFP), employees of public transportation, communal civil servants, personals of health, firemen, employees of the social services, teachers, etc. against the government measures and the dismissals plans. At present, they are the steel workers from several factories and companies who initiated a strike movement in front of the austerity measures, notably those aiming at delaying the retirement age ; on October 2, 200 000 demonstrators invested the streets of Amsterdam, the "most important gathering organised in the capital since 20 years" (AFP, 10/27), while some others strikes are envisaged for the weeks to come in education or the public office

In Belgium, on a background of strikes at DHL (private mail firm) and in the hospitals, against the suppressions of jobs and the attack against the working conditions, they are the employees of public transport which entered in the struggle in their turn. In Brussels in particular, the employees of the STIB (Brussels transportation company) and of the TCE stopped spontaneously the work on October 27. This movement of wildcat strike, triggered off by the base, blocked two thirds of the public grid system in the Belgium capital. It was the "general discontent of the drivers of bus which is at the origin of this spontaneous movement " (Le Soir, Belgium newspaper, October 28th 2004). It was actually a generalized fed up of the employees which was at the origin of the unexpected character of this movement, beyond a mere question of conjectural "insecurity" that the media evoked to try to limit the significance of the event ; moreover, the promise to add 5 additional controllers on certain lines didn't alleviate the anger of the wage earners : "the trade unions were takers (of this proposal) but the base doesn't follow" recognized the direction.

In Germany still, the employees of Volkswagen are, at the time we're writing, in the expectancy in front of a plan aiming at freezing the wages for two years with a reduction of the costs of personnel of 30% from here to 2011. The risks of conflict are quite real. On the one hand, the direction agitates the threat to remove 30 000 jobs if the measures are not accepted, while the trade union IG Metall agitate the spectre of work stoppage… for the first week of November and tries to negotiate down its own proposals for a revalorization of the wages, demanding now only a 2% increase instead of 4% that it promised the workers to defend a few weeks ago.

All this movements are assigned to take an extension in the period to come, with other characteristics, tops and bottoms, but right now they make it possible to confirm the renewal of the class struggle, they make it possible to affirm that : yes, the working class answers "present !" in front of the attacks by the bourgeoisie.

Those who don't see it just show in this way to what extent they submit themselves with easiness to the black-out and to the desinformation that the bourgeoisie imposes to its medias. The medias, it's their function, their contribution to the regulation of social peace, present each one of these movements as nothing but a demonstration "of despair", depicting us "morose processions", "lacking of enthusiasm" et "demoralised" workers (see Le Monde 10/29, French newspaper, October 29th, about the struggle of the DHL workers). It's up to the serious revolutionaries to present a clear, definite analysis, to buckle down to expose an orientation and an analysis without ambiguity on the dynamic which expresses itself within the society and that these movements illustrate.

At the very opposite of this class orientation, we must notice that the present ICC, under an opportunist direction :

- adopts the same kind of language that the press "at the orders" by presenting, since few months, the workers as being demoralized, apathetic and disoriented ;

- claims to fulfil its role of communist minority by giving as an orientation to the workers "to think", "to become conscious and self-confident ", in other words to give up the struggle ant to remain quiet ;

- develops analysis of the social situation in which it says everything and the exact opposite of it, speaking of "turns in the class struggle" without saying of what turn it is about and by maintaining the vision of an hesitant class, in prey to the eternal "decomposition".

By this attitude too, the present direction of the ICC shows that it involves our organisation to the political bankruptcy, that it makes this organisation useless, and possibly harmful, for a working class which started the struggle and thus requires for the orientations and the political presence of the vanguard that history made emerge.

The period which opened will see the merciless political struggle between the mortal opportunist tendencies and the true communist tendencies. We, internal fraction of the ICC, are ready for that struggle ; we have already engaged it for more than three years and we intend to make overcome the true policy of the ICC in the proletarian camp and in the working class.

October 29th, 2004.


1. Main source for the quotations: AFP = French Press Agency .

2. The "Enterprise Committee" is an organ of the firm dedicated to rule the social conflicts on the basis of "social peace".

3. The serious groups of the proletarian camp had also raised the first indices of revival, had analyzed their characteristics, had intervened in the direction to push all the potentialities of these first proletarian bursts. The ICC, for its part, had been lost in the mazes of the "effects of the decomposition" on the working class.

Communist Bulletin Nš 28 - Internal Fraction of ICC