• Renewal through Strike

  • By Fanny Zeise | 16 May 13
  • Strikes are a major means of trade union self-assertion. A closer look at strikes in Germany reveals interesting trends and developments, indicating new approaches to trade union strategies and practices.

    At a March conference organized by the RLS (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) and the German service workers union ver.di in Stuttgart some experiences and analyses of strikes were brought together and discussed.1


    Strikes in the Federal Republic of Germany

    In comparison with other countries, relatively few strikes take place in Germany. According to estimates of the Institute for Economic and Social Science (WSI) for the period between 2004 and 2010, on average 15 working days per year were lost due to strikes, whereas in France the number was 162, in Belgium 64 and in Great Britain 24.

    In the highly juridified system of industrial relations in the Federal Republic, strikes have primarily functioned as latent threats by high-membership trade unions in well-organised workplaces. ‘The labour struggle practices of the trade unions belonging to the DGB (German Trade Union Federation) largely adheres to the dominant legal conception that sees strikes only as an ultima ratio’ (Dribbusch: 236).

    During the Federal Republic’s economically prosperous years, a low unemployment rate prompted employers’ intense interest in collective agreements as a way to protect themselves from wage competition for skilled workers. Collective bargaining took place along strongly institutionalised lines and in the framework of partnership relations between the bargaining parties which attributed to the trade unions a pacifying function even in times of strikes (Hensche). In Germany strikes are strongly regulated, may only be undertaken for certain demands clearly specified as subject to bargaining, are subject to the risks to the members of high strike-pay and are legal only if a union calls them.   


    Recent developments

    In recent years the number of strikes has clearly risen without a notable increase in the number of strike days. According to data provided by the WSI, 250 strikes and warning strikes took place in 2012, most of them because of single-workplace or company-wide collective agreements. While between 1960 and 1990 most walkouts took place in IG Metall’s collective agreement sector, since the mid-1990s a shift to the services sector can be seen (Dribbusch). In 2012, the 188 applications for strikes in the federal executive of the largest German services union, ver.di,  represent the climax of this trend (WSI). 

    The reason lies in the changed conditions: On the legislative level, union representation reeled from the disastrous Hartz IV measures and deregulation of employment conditions. Furthermore, the economic crisis and growing unemployment undermined the structural power of trade unions. At the same time they were confronted with increasingly aggressive employer strategies, which are no longer relying on the pacifying function of cooperation. To a great extent, the work of trade unions began to be characterised by defensive struggles, crisis management and agreements on workplace competitiveness.

    Drop in membership

    A severe drop in membership, the lack of works-council structures and increasingly precarious labour conditions has led, in many sectors, to a partial or complete loss of the capacity of trade unions to call strikes. At the same time, collective wage agreements are steadily losing importance as employers resign from their employer federations. In addition, privatisations and the outsourcing of some of the employees most willing to strike, such as sanitation workers and those in the public transport sector, removing them from the purview of the collective agreement in the public services sector, have led to a fragmentation of bargaining structures. Many of the wage disputes reveal the defensive position in which the trade unions find themselves.

    While trade unions have long tended to ignore this situation, continuing to take their own organizational nature and practice for granted, in recent years voices have been heard advocating change since ‘even, and particularly, in difficult situations and crisis periods, it is still possible for social actors such as trade unions to make fundamental choices’, says sociologist Klaus Dörre, whose thesis triggered discussions on how to revitalise trade unions.

    The alleged revival of a strategy of social partnership through the ‘crisis corporatism’ (Urban) emerging during the financial and economic crises of 2009 shows how caught up parts of the trade unions still are in the old forms of regulation which hardly seem promising in the face of the negative power constellations. Yet, a comprehensive reorientation of trade unions cannot be discerned.

    However, there are now attempts to see how organisational strength can be reconstructed.  New conflict-oriented initiatives have developed precisely in areas now exposed to massive attack.


    Elements of a new culture of strikes

    Remarkable in recent years have been strikes by groups which had previously been considered hard to organise. The first post-war strike of cleaning personnel (2008) or the conflict over the preservation of a centralised agreement in the retail sector (2008/2009) are examples of the high participation of women in recent strikes. Another trend becomes obvious here: the increase of strikes in sectors where precarious employment plays an important role.

    At the Stuttgart conference, strike tactics were discussed, specifically through joint actions and the involvement of the public. A good example is the retail trade. There employers have recently been successful in breaking strikes by recruiting staff from employment agencies. The ver.di district of Stuttgart successfully countered this outsourcing strategy by resorting to flexible strike tactics: The strikers arranged to leave the shops at very specific hours and used this surprise effect to make it impossible for employers to hire flexible labour in time to substitute them (Riexinger).

    Even the six-week strike in the educational services sector (2009) was characterised by high participation despite the employees’ professional ethos, i.e. their sense of responsibility for the children in their charge. The educators could reconcile the children’s welfare with their strike aims by making clear to the public  the link between their interests as employees and high-quality childcare. In addition, trough flexible strikes they limited the burden for the parents and could occasionally even win them over for joint protests.

    But politicising demands is not only important for the motivation of the employees. In the public sector in particular, walkouts very often do not create economic pressure. As conflicts in the public sector are automatically also political, winning over public opinion is central to the struggle.

    Recent strikes are very often accompanied by participatory and democratic forms of organisation, which, however, all too soon come up against the limits of classical trade union structures.   

    Although strikes are democratically legitimised, the power to shape how they are actually conducted does not lie with the employed. Despite pre-strike ballots and deliberations in elected bargaining committees, decisions regarding strikes eventually need the blessings of the trade unions’ Federal Executive Committee. Even the particular strategies are usually determined by strike coordinators who are full-time functionaries.

    ver.di’s Stuttgart district has developed some elements to counteract the lack of democratic participation by the actors proper, i.e. the strikers. By including shop stewards working on a voluntary basis in the strike-organising committees and by the exchange of all strikers on a daily basis in strike assemblies, both participation and the ability to strike were significantly increased.

    As developing strike strategies is complicated but has far-reaching consequences, the focus was put on expanding the strategic skills of the volunteers by providing them with early information and by including them. In the long term, a more democratic, livelier and more participatory strike culture began to develop in this way (Schmalstieg).


    Renewal by strike

    The approaches and strategies discussed at the conference on strikes call into question important pillars of a trade union practice oriented toward social partnership and proxy representation. At the same time the practice of the strikers contains the potential to accelerate and consolidate necessary changes in trade union work. During a strike, workplace hierarchies are suspended and independent collective organisation can unfold. Solidarity and common strength can be experienced. Therefore going on strike is an act of emancipation even today. The strengthened self-confidence and experience of the employees suggest a practice beyond that of classical representation, one which does not shy away from conflicts and is able to handle them.

    A strike in the Stuttgart retail trade illustrates this. Young immigrant women could be won over to activism in this dispute and became a driving force in the strike. Afterwards they practiced an entirely new workplace policy. As newly elected works councillors they were much less shy about using strikes as a means of exerting pressure than their older colleagues, who still had good memories of the practice of social partnership in the workplace (Riexinger).

    This change in trade union practice will not occur without friction and political resistance. Stronger membership participation, democratised structures and conflict skills can only be developed and established within continuous reflective practice. It is against this and the successes of upcoming strikes that the chances for trade union renewal will be measured.



    1. The conference was one of the first to deal on a cross-union level with the issue of strikes and an activating and democratic strike culture. Besides the high number of participants (500), it should be noted that the majority of participants were relatively young trade union researchers and full-time and voluntary trade unionists. See ­ www.rosalux.de/streikkonferenz.



    Dörre, Klaus: Strategic Unionism - Die Bedeutung von Streiks für gewerkschaftliche Erneuerung. Referat auf der Konferenz „Erneuerung durch Streik“ [Strategic Unionism – The Significance of Strikes for Trade Union Renewal. Speech at the Conference “Renewal by Strikes“], Stuttgart, am 3 March 2013. See www.rosalux.de/streikkonferenz.

    Dribbusch, Heiner: ‘Organisieren am Konflikt: Zum Verhältnis von Streik und Mitgliederentwicklung‘. [Organising During Conflict: The Relationship between Strikes and Membership Growth] In: Haipeter/Dörre (eds.): Gewerkschaftliche Modernisierung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2011, pp. 231-263.

    Hensche, Detlef: ‘Markt und Mitbestimmung – Ansatzpunkte demokratischer Arbeit und überbetrieblicher Ausgleichsmacht‘ [Market and Co-determination – Starting Points of Democratic Work and Cross-Company Countervailing Power ]. In: Fricke, Werner/ Wagner, Hilde: Demokratisierung der Arbeit. Hamburg: VSA Verlag, 2012.

    Riexinger, Bernd: ‘Demokratisierung von Streiks – Revitalisierung der Gewerkschaftsarbeit. Referat auf der Konferenz “Erneuerung durch Streik“’ [Democratizing Strikes – Revitalisation of Trade Union Work. Speech at the Conference “Renewal through Strikes“], Stuttgart, 2 March 2013. See www.rosalux.de/streikkonferenz.

    Schmalstieg, Catharina: Partizpative Arbeitskämpfe, neue Streikformen, höhere Streikfähigkeit? Eine Untersuchung der Gewerkschaftsarbeit des ver.di-Bezirks Stuttgart am Beispiel von Arbeitskämpfen im öffentlichen Dienst und der Tarifrunde der Beschäftigten des Bundes und der Kommunen 2012 [Participatory Workplace Disputes, New Forms of Strike, Higher Strike Capacity? A Study in the Trade Union Work of ver-di in its Stuttgart District as Seen in Workplace Disputes in the Public Sector and the Bargaining Round of Federal and Local Government Employees]. Berlin, RLS-Analysen, 2013.

    Urban, Hans-Jürgen: ‘Gewerkschaften und Kapitalismuskritik‘ [Trade Unions and the Critique of Capitalism]. In: Zeitschrift Z, Frankfurt/ Main, No. 29, December 2012, pp. 19-30.

    Schneider, Dieter (ed.): Zur Theorie und Praxis des Streiks [On the Theory and Practice of Strikes]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1971.