New Labor Internationalism in Germany

The beginning of global changes in labor internationalism was marked by 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War ended. In the political dimension, the West no longer had a rival against which it had to compete. In the economic dimension, though, alterations were more substantial. Specifically, the countries that had been state-socialist until the end of the Cold War became the elements of the world capitalist economy. Changes in labor standards were noticed even before the Soviet Union’s disintegration: in the 1970s, employees in both parts of the conflicting unions started experiencing major modifications in the process of work. Over the next two decades, the world’s elites and capitalists were divided along with two directions: nationally-oriented and transnationally-oriented.1 Due to the transition of many countries to capitalism, state power was gained in numerous nationally oriented sectors.

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Labor internationalism was closely associated with the notion of globalization. As Robinson notes, globalization was a new era in the continuous expansion of world capitalism marked by the increase in the globally integrated financial system and production.2 Furthermore, that process was characterized by the appearance of the transnational capitalist class and nascent transnational state mechanisms. Meanwhile, structural innovations in the world economy related to globalization strengthened the new division among the former Third World elites between nationally- and transnationally-oriented unions.3 While those two sets of elites had coincided in some issues, they competed in many others. Thus, the development methods employed by them at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries were disparate. Nationally-oriented elites aimed at constructing national courses of growth, whereas transnationally-oriented ones intended to incorporate local circuits into transnational areas.4 Such conflicting approaches to development entangled specific sets of policies. Firstly, there were policies securing local workers from global competition. Secondly, there were the ones accommodating local agents into transnational areas.

One of the countries in which the transition from the Cold War to capitalism was a prominent process was Germany. It was the country that had been a symbol of the Cold War due to its capital being divided into two parts by the so-called wall of shame. When the war ended, German workers, as well as many laborers in other countries, faced a series of challenges. Particularly, there were considerable modifications in work conditions due to alterations in the political and economic systems. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the superiority of American capitalism was proclaimed in Germany.5 The country, which was divided into the capitalist and state-socialist parts, fell under the strong influence of the Cold War. Laborers were the ones who felt the division’s effect especially acutely.

European socialism evolved within nation-states and was created by individuals belonging to subordinated classes that also considered themselves as nations. Hence, working classes in this part of the world were constructed on the ground of already established national identities, which had symbolized the feudalistic political geography.6 The creation of working classes in such conditions was not similar to that of American and Canadian, which were settled through the combination of imported national identities and the racial expulsion of colored and indigenous workers. Furthermore, whereas the concept of internal colonization processes could be applied relative to North America, it was impossible to implement them in European Germany.

The major problem of that movement was that it lacked a program and organization. Thus, while activists gained the decomposition of the socialist regime, they were not able to reestablish East Germany’s economic and political arrangement. It was the first occasion in East Germany’s history that citizens started identifying themselves with the country in which they lived. However, the lack of a successful government made the loss of the country inevitable.7 At that moment, conservatives from West Germany realized that they had an opportunity to impact the processes evolving in East Germany.

Work conditions in East Germany fluctuated heavily, leading to mass unemployment, rapid deindustrialization, and the emergence of casual jobs with poor benefits. Many workers from East Germany who were dissatisfied with the lack of employment conditions and opportunities moved to West Germany in search of better jobs. As a result, it became clear that changes in the country’s political and economic systems were inevitable.8 It was clear to laborers that the economy in East Germany was not stable or sustainable. However, the Socialist Unity Party kept employing its old methods with the increased intensity upon seeing that the state of affairs was altering quickly. Such a growing separation between employees and the political system made possible the emergence of the movement that caused the dissolution of East Germany’s economic and political arrangements.

Mass unemployment and deindustrialization in East Germany relocated the bargaining power from laborers to employees. However, East German workers who sought better employment conditions in West Germany were soon unpleasantly surprised. Laborers realized that the symbol of the “economic miracle,” which they all expected to follow unification, was, in fact, the omen of economic devastation.9 Export industries favored in West Germany, which were characterized by their market-conquering nature, spread in East Germany. State-owned businesses were given to private investors, and many of them were closed down. Other enterprises were turned into departments of larger western organizations. The industrial structure of East Germany, which had remained almost unchanged since the 1970s, gradually became the economy with poorly-paid service sector jobs. As a consequence of such processes, the economic sector of East Germany could never gain the results of West Germany’s industrial structure. Although East Germany’s social system was altered in the process of shifting from state socialism to capitalism, laborer’s experiences remained much like those in the post-Cold War years. People were disappointed and skeptical, and they felt like they had been betrayed.

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Based on Germany’s example, it is viable to make some predictions about new labor internationalism. The major issue is that it is not possible to foresee the situation with a high degree of certainty. Some laborers are losing their bargaining power, which causes massive disruptions and production flaws.10 At the same time, however, other industries’ representatives are gaining more of such power. Thus, it is relevant to say that the prospects of developing new labor internationalism depend greatly on the workers’ efforts and successes. However, it is also necessary to pay attention to the fact that social movements, which arise in various countries from time to time, can have a strong effect on the progress of global internationalism. Furthermore, labor movements have gained much significance in society, which means that their role in supporting or opposing labor internationalism will also be decisive. The case of post-Cold War Germany was not the most positive one, but other countries may develop their labor arrangements in a more successful way.


Robinson, William I. “Global Capitalism Theory and the Emergence of Transnational Elites.” Web.

Schmidt, Ingo. “German Labour Experiences Since World War Two: A Suggested Interpretation.” Labour/Le Travail 63 (2009): 157–179.

Silver, Beverly J. Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


  1. William I. Robinson, “Global Capitalism Theory and the Emergence of Transnational Elites,” Web.
  2. Robinson, “Global Capitalism Theory.”
  3. Robinson.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ingo Schmidt, “German Labour Experiences Since World War Two: A Suggested Interpretation,” Labour/Le Travail 63 (2009): 158.
  6. Schmidt, “German Labour Experiences,” 160.
  7. Schmidt, 174.
  8. Schmidt, 173.
  9. Ibid., 174.
  10. Beverly J. Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 170.
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