Berlin industrial dispute of national importance

On Monday, 22 June hundreds of workers launched an indefinite strike to demand more staff at the Charité, Europe’s biggest university hospital where a total of 13,000 people are employed, 4,400 of them nurses. The walk-out was solid in the first three days, the mood electrifying. More than 600 workers are involved in the strike action so far. 1,000 out of the hospital’s 3,000 beds are affected. Every day 200 operations are being cancelled. Stephan Gummert, a SAV (Sozialistische Alternative – CWI in Germany) member and one of the strike leaders, said at the marvellous demonstration on the second day of the strike: “Since yesterday, I see laughing faces again of those who are angry because of the horrific situation at work – and who understand that the whole system is ill.”

Historic dimensions

For different reasons, this struggle is unique. Between the Second World War and 1989, not a single hospital strike at all took place in Germany. That changed in the last couple of years.

In the Charité twenty years ago a small number of left-wing, mainly socialist, activists began to build a group of the biggest public sector union (ver.di) in that particular hospital, in which members of SAV are playing a leading role. The development of such a combative group made it possible to organise impressive strikes, in 2006 and in 2011. These struggles and the winning of some improvements helped to widen the nucleus of activists and pathed the way for this new conflict.

After the struggle of 2011, the ver.di-group asked the workforce what were the most burning issues that needed to be dealt with – the overwhelming majority emphasized that the pressure at work and the need to employ more workers were the key questions. For that reason, a new struggle at the Charité was initiated two years ago, which led to the first ever strike in a hospital in Germany demanding a collective bargaining contract that regulates the nurses/patient ratio. On the basis of many discussions, the concrete demands now are: “no nights alone”, and for staff patient ratios of 1:2 in the intensive care unit and 1:5 in the general wards - which would mean 600 new jobs in total.

Nationwide in hospitals there is a shortfall of 162,000 jobs. The trade union is demanding a law to regulate the patient/nurse ratio. At the Charité, the opinion is: we can’t wait. Three trade-union activists from Essen university hospital visited the Berlin picket line in support and said: “If you are successful you will break open the floodgates” - motivating the workforces in other hospitals all over the country to follow the example.

The “other” Germany

In one of the richest countries on the globe, and in the economic powerhouse of Europe the working class now is faced with the biggest low-pay sector after Latvia on the European continent. Per head of population, more hospitals are privatised than in the US. It is estimated that 40,000 patients and visitors contract deadly diseases in hospitals every year.

Active and lively picket lines

Every morning in the three main hospital sites of the Charité in different parts of the city, the workers on strike come together in gatherings. Then “flying pickets” visit all the wards and try to convince more workers to join the strike and become union members. Others in groups go to public transport stations, the city centre and the neighbourhoods distributing leaflets and postering.

On Tuesday, a delegation of the Charité visited a 1,000-strong meeting of postal workers who are also on strike. There is an understanding to coordinate the fightbacks and to give support to eachother. On Tuesday afternoon, 2.000 Charité workers and supporters demonstrated in the city centre of Berlin – in an extremely combative and inspiring march. Delegations of the postal workers, of the workers at H&M and of others sectors took part in the demo.

Discussion meetings for the workers (partially organized by SAV-members) on issues like “political strikes” also take place during the strike.

Strike democracy

Officially, seven trade-union members are part of the delegation in the negotiations, while 21 are part of the commission dealing with demands and possible offers from the employers. To involve more people in the discussions, enormous efforts are taken to build a body of “advisers” with the aim that every group of workers (nurses, workers in the administration, workers responsible for technical issues etc.) are involved. In addition, attempts are taken to organise regular assemblies of the striking workers to discuss and decide the key questions. Also, the decision was taken, that the strike will not be stopped during negotiations.

Solidarity and public support

Lucy Redler (leading SAV-member and spokesperson for the “Krankenhausbündnis” -Hospital alliance campaign) opened her speech at the strike demonstration with: “We are the 99%”. One Berlin tabloid paper, the “Berliner Kurier”, reported that in a survey organised by them, 99% support or understand the demands of the strike, while one percent would oppose it. Probably not 99 % in the city are behind the struggle but definitely the vast majority. The management company financed an advertising agency and hired helpers to put up “strike is no solution” posters that mimicked the design of the ver.di union and other similar material. But you can hardly find such placards and stickers in the hospitals given that not only the workers but also many patients destroyed them.

Two years ago, an alliance (“Berliners for more staff in the hospitals”) was formed to support the struggle at the Charité, a campaign in which SAV members play an active role. Friday 19 June saw a 200-strong indoor solidarity rally in the building of the public sector union at which representatives from other hospitals, from Daimler, Telekom and many other workplaces and sectors spoke in solidarity with the fightback at the Charité.

Left Party MPs distributed a statement in solidarity with the strike and some leading figures of the party visited the picket lines. Some Left Party branches, with the involvement of SAV members, have produced leaflets and banners and organised activities to explain the importance of the struggle in Berlin neighbourhoods . But while the leading bodies of the Left Party in Berlin and on a national level have declared their support for the strike they have not, so far, used their whole potential in assisting the struggle.

A turn in the situation

In the course of the last year, the generally anaemic economic upswing in Germany has slowed down. Paradoxically, the increasing problems (lack of demand in the so called “emerging countries” and the ongoing crisis of the euro) led to a dramatic decrease in oil prices and in the value of the Euro which meant again a certain boost for the German economy. But the experience of worsening working conditions and minor wage increases has fuelled anger and led to a higher self-confidence among a layer of workers.

The conservative paper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” called what is developing now a new “strike wave”. At this stage that is a bit exaggerated but – with the continuing walkouts of the kindergarten nurses and social workers (for four weeks) and the postal workers, and recent strikes by train drivers and in others sectors already –this year is already among those with the most working days “lost” to strike action since 1992. Unfortunately, the trade-union leaders are not linking together the struggles in the way which is possible and necessary.

But the preparedness of workers in Germany to fight back is going hand in hand with a hard line from the ruling class in many conflicts. Carsten Becker, SAV member and spokesperson of the ver.di-group at the Charité and one of the strike leaders said during the 48 hour-long warning strike in May: “We have no patience any more – but we have long stamina.” That could be necessary in the industrial dispute at the Charité.

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