Why Germans are starting to strike – like the French

Day-care workers are on strike this week as Germany's model labor union system shows signs of unraveling.

Isabelle de Pommereau
In Germany, tens of thousands of teachers, day-care and youth workers from Bremen to Munich took to the street this week.
Isabelle de Pommereau
Protesters broke with the consensual way in which employers and employees in postwar Germany have solved disputes over working conditions.

Germans rarely strike. So when tens of thousands of teachers, day-care providers, and youth workers from Bremen to Munich took to the street this week, they did much more than disrupt the schedules of busy working parents.

They broke with the consensual way in which employers and employees in postwar Germany have solved disputes over working conditions.

It is as though the rebellious streak in French workers next door has started to spill across the Rhine River.

"German is waking up," said Monika Lattki Thursday morning, demonstrating with hundreds of day-care workers in front of Frankfurt's city hall. The teachers say they are overburdened with red tape and suffer from health problems caused by their jobs, and are striking for more pay and more recognition. "We've reached our pain level."

Four strike days per year vs. 93 days

Such complaints may sound common in the US or elsewhere in Europe. But they're completely unorthodox here. Between 1998 and 2007, strikes in Germany cost employers an average of four work days per year, per thousand workers.

In France, the comparable figure is 93 days. In the US, it's 30.3 days. Denmark had the highest average number of days lost per year, 157.3 days, according to a study by the Hans Boeckler Foundation in Dusseldorf, the research arm of the German Confederation of Trade Unions.

After World War II, Germany did not want to repeat a situation where, during the Weimar Republic, competition between unions led to social unrest and contributed to the rise of National Socialism. Politicians created a legal infrastructure where unions would become partners with employers, and guarantors of democracy.

"In Germany, you have a postwar history of powerful unions that are a part and parcel of social partnership," says Lowell Turner, professor of international and comparative labor and collective bargaining at Cornell University in New York.

Germans put in place a system where unions negotiate pay and working conditions for entire sectors of the economy through collective bargaining.

Over the years, unions brought a shorter workweek, longer vacations, and better wages with no – or little – labor dispute for entire sectors of the economy. The standard of living in Germany has traditionally been higher in Germany than in France.

"The Germans have learned how to combine economic success with high wages and an extensive vocational training," says Professor Turner.

Confidence in German model erodes

That is, until now. With chronic unemployment (currently at 8.6 percent), and economists predicting that gross domestic product will fall by 6 percent this year, confidence in the model is declining.

The current strike is the latest manifestation of that erosion of confidence.

By law, civil servants, including teachers, can't strike. But that didn't stop protesting day-care workers from successfully shutting down hundreds of preschools across Germany this week.

Negotiations over salaries and working conditions between the union representing day-care workers and the city are going on. But protesters, such as Ms. Lattki, have vowed to prolong the strike "until our demands have been met."

Such strikes are becoming more common. This past fall, tens of thousands of German school pupils poured into the streets, participating in the first national student protest.

They demonstrated against poor conditions, saying that classes are too big and that the German school system's placement of pupils into university- and non-university tracks from as early as age 9 discriminates against children from lower social economic backgrounds.

Train conductors, doctors break ranks

In recent years, train conductors, pilots, and medical doctors have also broken away from the collective bargaining system and have gone on strike for better pay and working conditions.

"There is a change in culture going on," says Kirsten Frank of the white-collar sector union Verdi, which organized the day-care strike with the education union GEW. "People are more willing to fight for their rights."

"In Germany, the level of labor protest has always been very low compared with other European countries," says Thorsten Schulten, a union specialist at the Hans Boeckler Foundation. "But the economic framework has changed dramatically for the worse. The German model of industrial relations is changing, and strikes are going to be more and more important."

Lessons from French neighbors?

German unionists may also be watching their French counterparts, and taking notes.

In France, earlier this year, employees and union activists held CEOs captive as a way to protest staff cuts.

Protesting fishermen have blocked traffic at many ports in northeastern France to protest European Union fishing quotas. French farmers captured trains from Spain to protest the import of cheaper food.

Striking high school pupils prevented nonstriking pupils from attending classes. Some universities have remained closed for weeks, even months, protesting over President Nicolas Sarkozy's reforms to give the schools more autonomy over hiring and their budgets.

And in France, not only have people gotten used to strikes, but they've also grown sympathetic to them. A new poll published for the weekly economic magazine Echo shows that 3 out of 4 people think that social unrest is justified.

"In France, people are used to having social conflict. They're prepared to act to defend their own interest even if it goes against the majority of workers," says Heiner Dribbusch of the Hans Boeckler Foundation. "In Germany, there is a greater reluctance to challenge the law, to be on edge. The thinking is that a civil servant is someone who has to be loyal to the state."

At least, that used to be the case.

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