"Fighting the myth of competition and challenging the trade union response"

By the colleagues of the "Standort" Group of Opel in Bochum (5/9/1995)


1. The new management strategies being introduced in companies under labels like "lean production" (team work, continuous improvement, new remuneration systems, flexibilisation of work, subcontracting and outsourcing, increased dependency of suppliers) result in rationalisation and attacks against workers. The intensification of work makes people ill and leads to job losses. These strategies are linked to efforts to win the hearts and the minds of workers. Management tries to make workers co-operate voluntarily in rationalisation and to gain control over them. These efforts are based on claims that only by becoming more competitive than workers in other companies and countries, can we secure our salaries, our employment and our lives. The companies demand that society as a whole accepts these strategies too.

2. Rationalisation is taking place in a period of permanent and massive unemployment, and leads to even more unemployment. Unemployed workers and people on social security are considered a burden, they get poorer and poorer, and are pressurised to accept any available job. Workers face growing competition and are forced to accept the new ideology.

3. Rationalisation is a symptom of problems with exploiting capital, and these have intensified since the end of the seventies. "If you want to discuss employment and unemployment, you have to tackle global relationships of money and capital" (E. Altvater).

Some keywords:

4. Managers describe their situation as a "world-wide competitive war". Their competition for maximum profit is an expression of the fact they are have to maintain and multiply their capital. It they don't stand their ground in this competitive struggle, they lose their capital and power.

5. If workers accept this forced competition imposed by employers and management (as if competition were a natural fact), then it is not possible to strive for "full employment". Neither is is it possible to defend "the own site" (in the sense of the place where wage dependents live and in the sense of their standard of living), nor can we struggle for an ecological, economical, intelligent and humane production and distribution process that aims to satisfy the needs of the people.

6. Trade unions adapted themselves in a disastrous way to this development. Decades of social partnership and consensus led to the helplessness of unions and their inability to cope with changed conditions. Their proposals are based on a wrong analysis and must lead to wrong conclusions:

the competitiveness problems of employers cannot be attributed to the "wrong policy" of the government (according to the IG- Metall). The hated "deregulation orgy of the eighties" was not the cause of "the growing importance of international financial transactions" (also IG-Metall), but a reaction. A trade union policy that aims at national salvation, in "the defence of Germany", is a completely hopeless reaction to pressure and strategies imposed by capital.

When trade unions say "The government stands idly by while other countries ... hermetically seal off their markets ... and now the Koreans are launching themselves onto the world market", etc (according to the IGM), a worse and more dangerous nationalism is propagated as a "way out". This ideology links the hopes of union members to the defence of the profits of "German" employers on the world market. Meanwhile, the source country of multinational companies becomes more and more unclear. In addition, such a union strategy opens up the possibility of getting rid of members in 'non-German' companies, for example in Toyota, General Motors and Ford ..

7. Practical consequences of the wrong analysis for current union policy are:

"Shaping power" is then reduced to a joint effort to improve the competitiveness of employers and to secure profits. In the current world market context this means that the union is only working towards its own destruction and will be a burden for wage dependents.

The slogan "the union as shaping power" is extremely important for the preparation of the next step towards lean production: the factory divided up, the virtual company, industrial production as a temporary project, organised like a film production. It goes without saying that national collective agreements are impossible here and unions are already abandoning them.

In the factories this strategy of "joint shaping" has several consequences. In the dual system of German workers' representation (union/works councils) all responsibility is delegated to the works councils. According to law they have to pursue peace in the company and strive for consensus. This means they are forced to help maintain the "competitiveness" of the company, as this is a part of management economic logic -- the slogan they use is "defence of the own plant". This leads to agreements by company - instead of collective agreements - that are often full of enormous concessions.

Key words: increased productivity by working during breaks, continuous improvement, wage concessions (only some increases provided by the collective agreement are implemented), salary loss as a result of a reduction of working hours or new salary systems, standard maintenance work on Saturdays "in order to facilitate investments", etc. Often the existing collective agreements are undermined at the company level.

8. The result of all this is that union leaders give up the idea that the union has to be an organisation representing the common interests of workers. The number of union members is decreasing. On top of this members feel discouraged because they are forced to consider the capitalist world order as the only alternative; according to union leaders the only possible struggle is a competitive war in which other wage dependents are the losers.

9. This leads to several challenges:

1. The need for unions was based on the fact that it was an organised coalition of wage dependents struggling against competition among workers. According to us solidarity is not only a principle, it is essential.

Many unions base their activities on competitive advantage. Therefore "workers are trapped in a treadmill, in a race that we cannot win..., it means concessions today and more concessions tomorrow" (Canadian Auto Workers). This leads to a downward spiral in which more and more standards that were won through a common and organised struggle, are being taken away.

We want trade unions that don't accept competition, which is the guiding principle of capital owners.

Some practical consequences for us:

2. In doing so we have to change the unions into organisations representing the interests of all people who have to sell their labour force in order to survive. This is all the more important now that the number of workers with "normal" employment is falling.

In practice this means, for example:

A) How do trade union members, for example, evaluate the daily work of works council members? Often they are considered as an extension of the human resource department instead of the organisers of trade union resistance. Works council members hold their positions for years and years. They have financial and labour privileges (exemption, office jobs, seminars and trips, conscious of being a representative and a specialist, etc). Furthermore the distance between them and the daily experiences of workers is growing. Their attitude towards life and their life-style are very remote from most of their colleagues. Is it not true that workers don't consider them as one of their own group any more?

B) This is also true when we make a critical analysis of trade union bureaucracy. During the early post-war years, the union leadership reneged on the political debate about alternatives to capitalism and concentrated on lessening the pain caused by market economics. This development coincided with a "legal incapacitation of the lay members" (Oskar Negt). Many officials in the higher levels had their successes with their bargaining power. The members were patronised more and more and had to react to the strike whistle. The content and the concessionary lines adopted did not result from discussions with the shopfloor or of their combat-readiness, but were decided on the basis of capitalist feasibility. "We don't mobilise in order to enforce our demands, but in order to facilitate a compromise that supports what we consider just and justified (H.J. Arlt, DGB- board)". "This means a lack of democracy among the members which we still face today" (O. Negt).

"In the official committees relations are ritualised... Suppressed conflicts which are not settled are examples of successful communication. When conflicts arise, loyalty and betrayal are the value standards used by the opponents... threats, moralising and correction determine the climate." (H.J. Arlt) (How far do people go out of fear of losing their function, how often does forced "loyalty" exist already in works councils and shop stewards committees?!)

"Many officials show by their life-style that they think they belong to this system and not to the opposition". (O. Negt). These union leaders, often on the company and local level, imitate the life-style of politicians, bankers and managers. This attitude is the result of the ideology of co-determination and is often based on feelings of inferiority. The consequence is "a kind of narrow-mindedness that was also enforced in the unions."

Was the fall of Franz Steinkühler an isolated case? We don't have to be surprised about the fact that he had no consciousness about injustice. Neither do we have to be astonished by the efforts of many high trade union officials to save his function in the name of "union solidarity".

If we now demand a higher level of co-determination by union members and a more systematic approach to it, aiming at the development of a culture of struggle and more democratic control by the shopfloor, this will most probably lead to a grim defence by those who want to secure their jobs, their power and their life-style.

3. The future of the unions is international. A union strategy can only respond to changed economic conditions if is not based on national or regional (European) protection of the economy of employers.

In practice this means:

We have to take systematic steps to stimulate an international union merger, a global trade union movement. This has to be an effort of internationalism of the shopfloor. For example:

4. The visible and global threats of massive unemployment, social pauperisation, war and ecological disaster force us to stimulate a broad debate with our unions and colleagues about social alternatives to the capitalist market economy. This debate has to a substantial part of our networks.


Questions for a debate on perspectives:

Where are the contradictions between socialized production and private ownership most obvious and where can we use these to our own advantage. Can the next step in the global distribution of production process help to satisfy everyone`s needs? We would have to redefine the term "growth"; maybe as ecologically sound, globally emancipatory, in favour of the brood masses and in favour of a secure global future....

How can such a system be envisaged on the basis of present global networking in the fields of technology, production and distibution?

What role would the metropolitan regions, local councils and federal states play?

How could capitalists and their political representatives be dispossessed and deprived of power on a global scale ?

What kind of democratic structures would be possible for a global society once rid of capitalist constraints?

To what extent should we members of the labour movement support global reform groups (i.e.: peace, ecological, anti-racist and anti-sexist groups) ? What is the position of non-government organisations such as ILO, UNO organisations etc? And where are their limitations?

"A global (or even macro-regional) social state, i.e. also a project of a global reform movement, are as utopian as the world revolution" (E. Altvater). But on the other E. Altvater also says: "The institutionalisation of the global state has already taken place to a certain extent in the form of the World Bank, IWF, GATT/WTO, UNO.... but without really taking away national state governmental powers." And: "Also at the Detroit Summit of the G 7 in March 1994 unemployment and employment policies were discussed for the first time, - a sign that beyond of Keynesianism but also beyond of neo-classical Market Liberalism a new political project enabling the state to regulate and to coordinate economic competition is emerging. This is obviously aimed to retaining a basic area of agreement in employment policy in which all states are interested, despite fierce economic competition."

This is characteristic for the kind of contradictory hope in this "new political project" called global regulation which seems to be spreading at present (cf. also J.Brecher/T. Costello: Global Village or global Pillage, Boston 1994). There will be more hope for a positive perspective, however, if we confront ourselves with the principle questions concerning the kind of economy and society we really want. And we will come closer to finding solutions the more people take their daily lives and our communal (global) future into their own hands. At the end of the day this depends on us!

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