News | Labour / Unions - Union Struggles Renewal through Offense

Looking back on ten years of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s trade union conferences


The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s 2019 strike conference in Braunschweig attracted over 800 participants. Photo: Niels Schmidt

Of all the events that the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation coordinates, the conferences on the renewal of the trade union movement (colloquially referred to as “strike conferences”) are probably the best-known among union activists in Germany. The conferences deal with various aspects of a political approach to union organizing focused on conflicts and worker participation. Current disputes are canvassed, and concrete issues facing paid and volunteer unionists are worked through.

Florian Wilde and Fanny Zeise both work on trade union renewal at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.

This article first appeared in Marxistische Blätter. Translated by Marc Hiatt and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The conferences focus on concrete practice. Reports from union work done on the ground and discussions with participants facilitate reflection and dialogue on appropriate strategies and forms of action. This makes it possible for unionists active in other sectors and contexts to take up these approaches, and develop and adapt them. The process is enhanced by inviting researchers working on trade union issues to contribute their findings and analytical perspectives, while this in turn allows them to benefit from discussions with practitioners and provides opportunities to conduct fieldwork.

The conference is also important in terms of network building. Colleagues from particular sectors engage in interregional dialogue, discuss the next round of concrete challenges they are facing, and can later draw on the relationships initiated at the conference. Parallel to the conference programme proper, numerous initiatives also use the opportunity to conduct networking meetings of their own.

Since 2013, we have cooperated with a circle of regional trade union organizations (which has grown from conference to conference) to conduct four conferences of this kind in Stuttgart, Hanover, Frankfurt, and Braunschweig.

The upcoming fifth conference on trade union renewal takes place from 12 to 14 May 2023 in Bochum, and is supported by trade union organizations also including — besides local branches of IG Metall, EVG, NGG, IG BAU, GEW, and Ver.di — the state-level offices of Ver.di and NGG. The conference will also have the support of the Centre of Cooperation RUB-IGM and the Institute for Social Movements at the Ruhr University Bochum. With already more than 1,100 registrations by the beginning of April, it promises to be the largest left-wing unionist conference in Germany for decades.

In the following, we elucidate some of the political considerations motivating the conference series, as well as the context for how it was set up and has developed.

The Emergence of Die Linke and the Renewal of the Trade Union Left

One effect of the fusion of the Electoral Alternative for Social Justice (WASG) — essentially made up of unionists from the former West — with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) to form Die Linke in 2007 marked a fracturing of the SPD’s decades-long, almost unrivalled hegemony in the unions. Union activists disappointed with the policies of the Social Democrats finally had an alternative.

Die Linke functioned to actively represent trade union positions in the country’s parliaments and in society, and declared itself the vigorous supporter of union activities. New spaces and resources for trade union politics opened up. In 2011, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation created its first advisory position on the topic of unions, as part of the Institute for Critical Social Analysis.

From the beginning, the foundation focused its union work on the issue of renewing the movement. German trade unions were in a bad way, following several decades of defensive action and declining membership. It was increasingly necessary to leave traditional routines and strategies behind.

Detrimental political “reforms”, such as the deregulation of the labour market, privatization, and the breakup of collective wage agreements in the civil service had weakened unions immensely. Meanwhile, in many sectors capital was terminating its social partnerships with the unions. Unions were being forced into new disputes over wages and workplace conditions, for which they were unprepared. Aggressive union-busting strategies on the part of employers became common. Under the changed relations of force, existing structures for the furtherance of social partnerships increasingly developed in the direction of competitive partnerships.

Disputes over wages and workplace conditions are always also political conflicts, since they deal with the relations of force between capital and labour.

Given this situation, in the late 2000s scholars began to debate and analyse unions’ dwindling capacity to exert power, considering what strategic options might be available to them under these circumstances. According to a thesis proposed by the team of young scholars around Professor Klaus Dörre in Jena, the decline in their institutional power meant that they would be well advised to expand their organizational power — which is to say, their members’ collective capacity for action.

At the same time, individual union activists were testing out new approaches to action. One of these has been the attempt, since the mid-2000s, to translate to the German context the experiences of unions in the United States with the organizing model, a systematic, conflict-oriented approach to union activity.

With our conferences, we want to offer the movement for trade union renewal a platform for dialogue and networking, and simultaneously bring it into contact with the scholarly discussion around renewal.

Practice as the Starting Point

Beginning in 2013, conferences on trade union renewal made it possible to reach committed unionists whose practice confronted them with major problems to which their organizations had no answer. The conferences offered and offer union activists a space to engage in dialogue and gather suggestions for how to respond to the challenges posed by the day-to-day work of organizing.

In addition, the focus on practically relevant issues makes it possible to address unionists who have very little time to spare. One of the factors that have made the conferences successful is that they set out from concrete challenges and the widely shared need to renew trade unions, rather than taking ideological or programmatic questions as a starting-point. This enables them to connect with people beyond classic left-wing trade-union circles and to make tangible the potential for links across unions and generations.

It is also important that critical perspectives not be sectarian and backward-looking, but formulated in future-facing ways, extending solidarity and tending to strengthen unions. In this vein, over time it has been possible to establish something like a movement for inquiry and renewal centred on the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and its conferences.

There is by now widespread acceptance of the need for new approaches to strengthen trade union organizational power. This can also be seen by the fact that top union officials have begun to appear at the conferences, speaking, seeking out new ideas, and realizing the relevance of these events. Nonetheless, the reorientation of trade union practices has a long way to go, unions are still often caught on the defensive, and there remains a great need for new ideas and energies that put trade union activity on the offensive.

New Momentum for Left-Wing Union Activity

The new openness to change in the unions makes it all the more important to have conversations about the direction this will take. In contrast to approaches that are more concerned with questions of membership and forms of organizing (which do not lead to substantive so much as methodological innovations), the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation aims to describe the substance of renewed trade union practices as conflict-oriented, democratic, and political.

  • Being conflict-oriented, or going on the offensive, means a readiness to engage in conflict in light of the fundamental clash between the interests of capital and labour, and the insight that, given the shift in the relations of force to the detriment of employees, the mere threat of workplace action often no longer suffices.
  • The notion of union activity that is democratic or oriented towards participation is closely related to an aptitude for conflict, since the motivation, commitment, and unity of our colleagues in a given dispute depends on their opportunities for democratic participation. Participation and the feeling of collective self-empowerment are also a key element of a democratization of society.
  • Political union activity means bearing in mind the political or social dimension of a conflict and articulating it, for example in order to put pressure on governments, win over the public, or enter into social alliances. The major challenges facing trade unions now and in the future demand that we politicize disputes. The issues involved in the underfunding of the civil service, the spread and deepening of precarity in working conditions in Germany, and the transformations taking place in industry cannot be solved just by the parties to a collective wage dispute. They will have to be tackled on the political level.

A key element of our approach, therefore, is understanding the “core business” of trade unions — workplace organizing and bargaining — as intrinsically linked to their political mandate. In this context, “political mandate” refers to the intention to go on the offensive by keeping in view the political representation of employee interests — at various levels — and implementing them.

The model suggests synchronizing the termination of collective agreements, and scheduling the terminations for moments of heightened social attention in order to engage in disputes together and develop a maximum of economic and political pressure.

Disputes over wages and workplace conditions are always also political conflicts, since they deal with the relations of force between capital and labour. They interfere with the structure of domination in the workplace, open up avenues for collective action, ignite processes of consciousness-raising and emancipation, and can enable a politicization of the dispute and alliances with affected populations and left-wing activists and parties. These connections are particularly clear in the German civil service, where the politics of austerity is immediately reflected in understaffing, longer working hours, precarious forms of employment, and reduced wage increases.

Dealing with trade union issues on the political level is not just an appealing idea. Owing to the commonly hard-line stance of public sector employers it is often necessary, since in many areas a withdrawal of labour results in no — or only very little — economic pressure. The political nature of disputes in the social services sector makes social alliances possible with the users of these services, but also with Die Linke as a political party. From a left-wing perspective, the “core business” of trade unions — the politics of the workplace and the wage — contains significant potentials for social change, which have an important place in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s trade union work.

Enriching the Debate over the Organizing Model

The 2019 “Strike Conference” in Braunschweig saw the first appearance in Germany of US organizer Jane McAlevey, who since then has been able to give significant impetus to organizing practices in this country and the discussions around them. We also sought to contribute to this through the publication of translations of her books No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age and A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, with the latter published in collaboration with union organization IG Metall Jugend.

At the centre of this organizing model lies the activity of employees themselves. This means, among other things, not only mobilizing colleagues who already sympathize with a union, but working systematically to win over colleagues with neutral or anti-union attitudes, in order to build up a majority in the workplace that is capable of concerted action and thus enabling other forms of struggle.

In addition, the model suggests synchronizing, as far as possible, the termination of collective agreements, and scheduling the terminations for moments of heightened social attention, for example during election campaign periods, in order to engage in disputes together and develop a maximum of economic and political pressure.

McAlevey’s methods have also been met with a good deal of interest and excitement internationally: the “Organizing for Power” online training programme organized by the foundation in the wake of the Braunschweig conference has so far attracted around 30,000 participants from 134 countries. At the Bochum conference, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation will launch a booklet with German translations of texts by Jane McAlevey on building power in the context of wage negotiations by maximizing the participation of employees in the negotiation process and letting their participation be as unmediated as possible.

Looking Ahead

We anticipate that the Bochum trade union conference will be the largest left-wing union conference that Germany has seen for decades, and that by bringing together paid and volunteer union activists with an interest in a trade unionism focused on conflict and renewal, it will stimulate activities that put unions on the offensive.

The conference happens to fall within a period of a growth in strike-ready movements across Germany. For example, it is currently possible that the wage dispute in the civil service will lead to the first all-out strike in over 30 years. Certainly efforts to revitalize the bargaining round — training in appealing to co-workers, wage agreement ambassadors, and work stoppages, together with an assertive demand for a real wage guarantee — have led to formidable warning strikes and big jumps in membership, with Ver.di announcing 70,000 new members in the first three months of 2023.

The issue of a social-ecological transformation will only gain in relevance as time goes by. Thus, 2024 will see a new bargaining round in the municipal public transport sector, which Ver.di plans to tackle in alliance with the climate movement as a political drive for a social-ecological mobility transition, while at the same time a number of struggles against workplace closures and job cuts in sectors unionized by IG Metall. This and many other conflicts and issues relating to a trade union offensive in a time of crisis, climate breakdown, and inflation will be the subjects of the Bochum conference.

It will not be the last conference in the series, for even if important steps have been taken, the search for a trade union renewal will continue, as will, therefore, the need for events of this kind.