News | Labour / Unions - USA / Canada - Union Struggles Striking for the Common Good

German trade unions can learn a lot from their US counterparts about building broad coalitions



Fanny Zeise,

Members of Service Employees International Union Local 99 along with support from LAUSD teachers, strike for a third straight day and march to attend a rally in Los Angeles, March 23, 2023.
Don't be a cheapskate with education
Members of Service Employees International Union Local 99 along with support from LAUSD teachers, strike for a third straight day and march to attend a rally in Los Angeles, March 23, 2023. Photo: IMAGO / UIG

The problems facing state provision of public services in Germany have been evident for some time now, but the COVID-19 pandemic really laid them bare for all to see — be it insufficient public transport, a lack of day-care centres, or underfunded paediatric clinics. Nevertheless, there are massive political hurdles blocking fundamental change in this field: regulations such as the European Stability and Growth Pact and the “debt brake” enshrined in the German Basic Law provide institutional support to the prevailing neoliberal doctrine of austerity.

Fanny Zeise is a Senior Fellow for Trade Union Renewal at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin.
This article first appeared in Marxistische Blätter. Translated by Joel Scott and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

These limitations mean that we need to develop new strategies if we are going to gain ground in the fight to expand public services to match public need. We can find a number of innovative ideas in this regard in the successful campaigns waged by teaching staff in the United States.

A wave of strikes by teachers in six US states including West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky that erupted spontaneously in April 2018 was able to chalk up wide-ranging and largely unexpected successes. Another powerful strike held by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) trade union in 2019 managed to secure the participation of an overwhelming majority of LA’s teachers, with 30,000 of 34,000 taking part.

Alongside higher wages and smaller class sizes, striking workers also managed to secure green spaces in every school and a legal aid fund for students at risk of deportation. On top of this, with their first strike since 1989, they were able to prevent the planned expansion of private schools in the region.

On the road to this historic victory, however, trade unionists came up against a series of tremendous difficulties: the restrictive US industrial action laws, the broader neoliberal framework in place in California, along with a public-school sector that has been crippled by decades of budget cuts and been the target of a professionally run campaign promoting the expansion of private schools. That campaign initially showed signs of success, with the school board being stacked with advocates of privatization.

How did the union manage to come out on top despite all these hurdles, and what can German unions learn from their experience?

Placing the Common Good at the Heart of the Struggle

The high level of participation in the strike was thanks to the persistent work conducted to build up the union’s power by way of mobilizing the base through workplace organizing methods. As far back as 2015, this organizing and mobilization campaign sought to bring parents’ groups into the fold. With its approach of “bargaining for the common good”, the teachers’ union did not make wage demands but rather placed the common good at the centre of its campaign — in the form of a better and fully funded education system.

In coalition with school students, parents, and members of the local community, the UTLA and other teachers’ unions made joint demands at the outset of the bargaining process that went beyond wage increases and smaller class sizes, and as such could not legally be included in a collective bargaining agreement. Given how critically cash-strapped the school system is, making demands for wage increases alone could have been perceived as cynical, both by the broader public and by teachers themselves. But by placing the focus on the common good, a broad alliance of social actors was able to place widespread political pressure on government to review its austerity policies.

If we want to effect fundamental changes that benefit both patients and health-sector workers, our campaigns will also need to appeal to the people who have the power to change austerity policies at the federal level.

Focusing on the common good and combining this with union demands is not an entirely new approach. Workers in many sectors are fighting not just for adequate wages, but also a working environment that does not undermine and impede their ability to perform their professional duties.

For example, nurses are fighting for increased staff numbers because the substandard levels of patient care engendered by understaffing are at odds with their professional ethics as nurses. In Germany, their slogan “more of us is better for everyone” underscores how in this case, the concerns of workers go hand in hand with the common good.

The teachers’ strikes in the US took this approach of focusing on the common good and stepped it up, systematizing and popularizing it. Firstly, they drew up their demands together with coalition partners and other stakeholders, and developed a joint strategy for the collective bargaining process. This process led to the evolution of close and enduring relationships. Secondly, the demands that were made incorporated the specific needs of all stakeholders. And thirdly, workers strategically used their power in the collective bargaining process to fight for these common-good demands — in the form of walkouts.

Because the school district failed to make a reasonable offer that the UTLA could take to the rank and file, the union ultimately called a six-day strike. This caused a major shift in the power dynamic. Alongside the walkout of almost all school staff, the daily demonstrations of some 60,000 teachers, students, and parents showed that the public mood was on the side of the striking teachers.

In addition to joint demonstrations staged in collaboration with parents’ and other groups, the teachers’ strike also included visits to politicians and public discussions on education policy, as well as emergency childcare and food programs for the young schoolchildren of working parents as central components of the campaign. Given that strikes had not been used as a means of pressuring policymakers for a number of years — and those that had been launched had often been declared illegal — this solidarity among the general public was extremely important.

Coalition-Building and Mass Strikes

The solidarity spurred the workers on and made it more difficult to crack down on the strikes. This combination of coalition-building measures and mass strikes produced enough political pressure for the union to push through its demands.

The initial response of district officials in Los Angeles was to lodge a complaint against the strike. Faced with the threat of its industrial action being ruled illegal, the UTLA removed the non-wage-related demands from its official list of demands, while at the same time assuring their coalition partners that it would continue to fight for community issues when it entered into negotiations. With this tactic, the coalition pulled the rug out from under the school district’s legal action against the strike.

Faced with significant political pressure, the mayor of Los Angeles and the governor of California ultimately intervened and forced the school district to begin negotiations with the teachers. The UTLA’s strategy of making the demands of the community the political prerequisite to the collective bargaining process worked. By doing so, the trade union was able not only to push through demands that were directly related workplace matters, but also to secure the broader social demands of their members and coalition partners.

Many of the most exciting approaches to revitalizing trade union work have come from the US, because American unions are subject to much more restrictive conditions, which means they have to be particularly innovative in order to make headway. In Germany as well, since the early 1990s, austerity policies and waves of privatization have caused working conditions to deteriorate in the public transport and healthcare sectors, as well as in the postal service. Permanent spending caps starve the public services of funding, with ever-shrinking numbers of staff expected to perform the same — or often more — labour, the effects of which can be seen in the declining quality of Germany’s public service provision.

The unions that have long sought to maintain “social partnerships” with employers in the public sector have been significantly weakened by these policies — which was also accompanied by the demise of sector-wide bargaining agreements. At the same time, the decline in the quality of public services places a growing burden on citizens and civil servants alike.

Bargaining for the Broad Majority

Nurses in particular have been fighting against this development for some years now and managed to secure some initial improvements in both their working conditions and the overall standard of patient care. For example, hospital workers in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia not only went on strike for more than 30 and 77 days respectively, they also developed a broader political campaign in which to couch these demands. The united services trade union Ver.di deliberately timed the campaign to coincide with the state elections in order to put politicians under pressure, which led to the state government instructing the hospital managers to negotiate with staff.

However, the situation in hospitals here continues to be precarious — with the catastrophic service provision situation around the turn of the year and the planned changes to hospital funding announced by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, new life has been breathed into the debate.

It is precisely because the German trade unions enjoy significantly more power than their American counterparts that they would do well to look towards more offensive and coalition-based strategies in order to stave off a further erosion of union power.

If we want to effect fundamental changes that benefit both patients and health-sector workers, in addition to hospital management and state governments, our campaigns will also need to appeal to the people who have the power to change austerity policies at the federal level. To this end, the German trade unions ought to take some cues from their American peers.

Because the approach of “bargaining for the common good” goes further than the kinds of coalition-building strategies that we have seen to date in Germany in a number of fundamental ways. Although German trade unions regularly use the public interest as part of their argument, they do not work together with potential coalition partners to formulate their positions, and they shy away from both incorporating broader social and political demands into their collective bargaining dialogues and from striking in support of these causes.

This urgently needs to change. One possible approach would be to work together with patient initiatives, industry associations, and medical and nursing science researchers to draw up the staffing standards required for adequate care and a list of changes that need to be made in hospitals. Combined with local coalitions, these partners could not only create publicity and put pressure on federal politics, but also support the strikes on the ground. This would create a coalition between those who work in the healthcare sector and those who rely upon it, in which both groups are seen as equal partners.

A national campaign for healthcare provision in which a broad, coalition-based political campaign and the strike-power of workers are deployed could usher in a turning point in overcoming years of under-funding when it comes to the provision of public services.

Common Interests, Common Struggles

Two other points where the common good and the interests of workers directly coincide, making them ideal issues to be targeted in strategic labour disputes, are staff numbers in schools and day-care facilities. Demands for more staff were an important component of the industrial disputes in the social and education services at the beginning of 2022, and teachers in Berlin are still striking for smaller class sizes.

Meanwhile, in the coming round of collective bargaining talks for local public transport set to take place in 2024, Ver.di can now build upon the experience it gained four years ago working together with Fridays for Future — a collaboration that demonstrated how well the interests of workers and climate protection can be combined in demands for the expansion and funding of local and regional public transport.

It is precisely because the German trade unions enjoy significantly more power than their American counterparts that they would do well to look towards more offensive and coalition-based strategies in order to stave off a further erosion of union power. Conversely, it is imperative that associations, social movements, and citizens’ initiatives utilize the power of trade unions and view collective bargaining rounds as opportunities to fight to increase funding for public service provision.