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Achieving the New Labor Internationalism in Germany

The Second World War (WWII) brought the end of fascism in Europe and marked the beginning of another round of struggle over the future power structure of the western and global civilization. Post-WWII was an era of a contest between pro-democratic-capitalist and their communist contenders. The Cold War period between the end of WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw nearly thirty years of the existence of the Berlin Wall or the Antifascist Protective Rampart – its official communist name – encircle West Berlin1. The wall’s purpose was to bar East Germans from escaping to the west, consequently symbolizing the Cold War division in Europe.

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During the Cold War period, the leading victors of WWII had divided Germany into two occupation zones. When communism and the Soviet Union collapsed, the bipolar world order ended but at the same time opened up another stage of a worldwide process of conflict, accommodation, and interchange that continues to shape the future of structuring of the world and the western civilization2. The transition from the Cold War to global capitalism had strong and unequivocal impacts on workers in Germany marked with rapid deindustrialization, mass unemployment, and an explosion of causal employment with minimal benefits, if any. Looking into the future, achieving new labor internationalism in Germany seems unattainable in Germany.

A political, as well as economic shakeup, ensued in Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism. The state-socialists countries of Eastern Europe joined the democratic-capitalist bandwagon. However, even as East Germany joined West Germany the differences that had existed between the two states failed to defeat one item; social justice and equality remained unaltered in the unified Germany3. The beginnings of a unified Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall had East and West specific problems as well as problems common to both sides of a unified Germany. For instance, the mass movement that had brought down the SED in East Germany lacked the means and knowhow to organize themselves politically and economically. This fact implied that much of the eastern side’s economic and political organization needed to adopt and adapt to the systems in the more successful US-backed west. Another underlying factor that shaped the labor and economic organization in the eastern side of unified Germany was the fact that during the Cold War, the western counterpart had been the United States’ showcasing of capitalism in Europe as the US heightened her containment policy against communism in Europe.

The genesis of workers’ problems in Germany in the 1990s was the realization that the adoption of capitalism and the Deutschmark in an east-west monetary union was an indicator of economic destruction rather than growth. For instance, “Deindustrialization in the East happened not just much more quickly than in the West, where it had developed over two decades after the post-war boom, it also went much further”4. East Germany industrially turned into a post-modern economy with very few industries as well as low-paying jobs in the private sector. The more generous welfare state of the west extended eastward, spurring a mass east-to-west migration of job seekers. As remarkably skilled eastern job seekers moved westward, West Germany corporate bosses used them to hasten neoliberal roll-back in the west and the unified Germany5. The result of these developments in Germany led to mass unemployment. For instance, in the east where unemployment had been zero under the socialist regime, unemployment rose to 20 percent when unification happened6 and the unemployed youth in the east went westward in pursuit of employment as elderly workers opted for early retirement.

In addition to the economic and political turmoil in the unified nation of Germany after the Cold War period, there was a social turmoil as well. For instance, the east-west estrangement that existed during the Cold War persisted after unification because the westerners still regarded the easterners as “more and more as lazy and undeserving recipients of the tax money West Germans had to work very hard for”7. Socially, the united German nation was in discontent with the conservative regime that pushed for neoliberalism in the unified Germany8. It is worth remembering that in the post-communist era, it was no longer appropriate to have references to blocs such as the free world, the socialist, the imperialist or such terms that still seemed to suggest divisions in the world9. The world had become an international community, and the conservative regime in charge of the unified German nation usually referred to globalization in their defense of neoliberalism. Globalization turned into the omnipresent excuse to lower labor, social, and environmental standards for German workers in the 1990s.

These social developments described above coupled with the German workers “disappointment and frustration with the Social Democrat’s turn against their historical project, the welfare state”10 culminated in the phenomenon of sprinkles of industries and employment on the wasteland of deindustrialization and unemployment. Consequently, the bargaining power shifted from the workers to the employers. This shift also emanated from Germany’s endearment with President Clinton and the US11. The proposition of a New Economy, which relied on free trade, threatened Germany’s export industries amidst competition from upcoming economies in Asia. What these developments translated to for the workers was wage restraint and the emergence of casual employment. Moreover, there was never equalization in wages between the easterners and the westerners even though the two sides experienced similar trends of wage development and employment after unification.

From the Germany perspective of the workers’ experiences after the Cold War, the possibility of having new labor internationalism is distant, unforeseeable, and desperate. It is unlikely to have new labor internationalism because there shift in industrial jobs from the industrialized nations to the developing nations. In the developing nations, labor is cheap, and workers are not unionized in addition to the low union power of labor unions in these nations. Germany is an industrialized nation and is no longer an industrial jobs hub. Additionally, despite the formation of the Left Party in Germany, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats for fear of losing voters to the Left have brought neoliberalism to a stop in Germany’s political system. Nonetheless, it is still difficult for the Left Party and labor unions to unify the concerns about neoliberalism into a unified program, which can facilitate the development of an alternative to neoliberalism. 2005 Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund data show that only 19.75% of employees in Germany were in unions, a drop from 29.27% unionized workers in 199012 despite more people joining the workforce. So long as the welfare state based on export-based economic development and political corporatism of West Germany that proliferated even after Germany’s unification persists as it does today13, individual, as well as unionized workers, are still exposed to neoliberalism perils.

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Lewis, Gawin. WCIV Volume 2: Since 1300. Student ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2015.

Schmidt, Ingo. “German Labour Experiences Since World War Two: A Suggested Interpretation.” Labour/Le Travail 63 (2009): 157–79. Web.


  1. Gawin Lewis, WCIV Volume 2: Since 1300, Student Edition (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2015), 533.
  2. Ibid, 591.
  3. Ingo Schmidt, “German Labor Experiences Since World War Two: A Suggested Interpretation,” Labor/Le Travail 63 (2009): pp. 157-179, Web.
  4. Ibid, 174-175.
  5. Schmidt, “German Labor Experiences Since World War Two,” 175.
  6. Ibid, 174.
  7. Ibid, 175.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Lewis, WCIV Volume 2, 592.
  10. Schmidt, “German Labor Experiences Since World War Two,” 176.
  11. Ibid, 176.
  12. Schmidt, “German Labor Experiences Since World War Two,” 179.
  13. Ibid, 178.

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