Ground workers cripple Lufthansa flights in Germany
On Wednesday, Lufthansa’s 20,000 ground staff largely crippled Europe’s largest airline, measured in passenger-kilometres. The company has canceled more than a thousand flights, including 680 in Frankfurt and 350 in Munich; 134,000 passengers were affected.
The strike shows the enormous power workers have when they decide to fight. But the Verdi union, which has called for the one-day warning strike, has no intention of using this power. Verdi manager Christine Behle, who is leading collective bargaining with Lufthansa, assured the ARD morning newscast that there would be no further action until the next round of negotiations on August 3: “I can rule out that.”
However, Lufthansa employees can only win their fight for better wages and working conditions if they break with Verdi. The union has no intention of enforcing its own wage demands, let alone taking action against intolerable working conditions. He is officially asking for a 9.5% raise, or at least €350 extra salary per month for a period of 12 months. That would roughly offset inflation but not make up for the massive loss of revenue in recent years.
Behle justified Verdi’s request on the basis of the precarious situation facing Lufthansa employees. More than a third of the staff had been cut during the coronavirus crisis. Their work was now to be taken over by the remaining employees, who were “exposed daily to the wrath of passengers”.
“The constraints are extremely high and many are considering leaving aviation for good,” complained Behle. After “three years of wage sacrifices to stabilize the company during the pandemic”, she added, employees had also been particularly affected by the high rate of inflation.
Such cynicism is almost speechless given that Verdi and Behle herself ensured that Lufthansa was able to send thousands of ground and in-flight staff and dictate the remaining “wage sacrifice”.
Behle, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is not only deputy chairman of the Verdi trade union, but also deputy chairman of the supervisory board of Lufthansa. In this role, which earns her an annual salary of €140,000, she is in constant contact with Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr and shareholders.
While the company has collected 6 billion euros in coronavirus aid from the federal government, Verdi and sectoral unions UFO and Cockpit have accepted tens of thousands of job cuts and billions in wage sacrifices. In the summer of 2020, UFO accepted savings of half a billion euros at the expense of 22,000 cabin crew, while Cockpit accepted cuts of 850 million euros at the expense of pilots.
At the end of 2020, Verdi then accepted a downgrading contract for ground employees. By immediately waiving Christmas leave and bonuses, combined with a wage freeze and bonus waiver until the end of 2021, ground workers “have made a savings contribution of more than 200 million euros for help overcome the crisis,” Behle said. The agreement with ground staff could save this group of employees up to 50% in personnel costs, said Lufthansa human resources manager Michael Niggemann.
“The German unions have never accepted such a reduction – around 1.2 billion euros – in the income of their members”, commented the WSWS at the time. “This marks a new starting point for union betrayals. Averaging the impact over 130,000 current employees, the deals will reduce income per worker by nearly €10,000.
Verdi made sure, and not just at Lufthansa, that any resistance to these massive cuts was nipped in the bud. The only exception was the ground workers at Frankfurt Airport, who fought for months against their dismissal from the service company WISAG through a hunger strike and countless demonstrations.
To lead this struggle, WISAG workers had to break with Verdi and form an independent grassroots action committee. Their struggle ultimately failed as it remained isolated and the trade unions, the Hessian state parliamentary parties and finally the courts stabbed them all in the back.
After Lufthansa staff were forced to bear the costs of the coronavirus crisis with massive layoffs and pay cuts, low wages and increasing job stress, they are now expected to ensure the company can repay state aid as quickly as possible and get rid of 20 percent of the federal shareholding so the lavish profits go back up again and the stock price goes up.
Working conditions are now so unbearable and wages so low that Lufthansa can no longer find enough workers. As Verdi itself admits, hourly wages of less than €12 are sometimes paid at its LTLS and Lufthansa Cargo subsidiaries. This is less than the minimum wage promised by the federal government.
The union is now demanding that the hourly wages of these groups of employees be increased to at least €13! No one can live off of it in expensive cities like Frankfurt and Munich, where the two most important German airports are located.
Staff shortages at airlines and airports are now so acute that Lufthansa had to cancel 3,100 flights from the program over the summer months, far more than the casualty of Verdi’s one-day warning strike.
Worldwide, around 2.3 million jobs have been lost in aviation since the start of the pandemic, including 600,000 in Europe. At German airports, around a fifth of jobs are unfilled, according to airport association ADV. A study by the Institute of German Economics has calculated that there is a shortage of around 7,200 skilled workers for whom no replacement can be found in the short term. A high level of sick leave due to COVID infections further aggravates the situation.
The consequences are not only flight cancellations, delays and long queues for travelers, but also insane work pressure for the remaining staff, who are paid miserably. The situation is reminiscent of the clinics and hospitals which, also under Verdi, were cut to the bone during the pandemic.
Verdi is desperately trying to keep growing anger over these conditions in check. This is why the union has called for a warning strike at Lufthansa. In the eyes of their well-paid civil servants, the one-day strike has no other purpose than to let off steam and strengthen their own authority so that they can calmly prepare for the next sell-off.
The entire international aeronautical industry is in turmoil. In recent weeks there have been and still are strikes at Ryanair, Easyjet, the Scandinavian airline group SAS and other airlines. Social movements at airports, particularly in France and Spain, have led to many flight cancellations. Thousands of flights have also been canceled in the United States due to understaffing at airports. At Lufthansa, the Cockpit union is currently organizing a strike vote among the pilots. British Airways pilots are also preparing for a strike.
For these struggles to succeed, they must break free from the shackles of the unions and build independent rank-and-file action committees that network internationally. The Sozialistische Gleichheitspartei (Socialist Equality Party) and its international sister parties have launched the International Alliance of Base Committee Workers for this purpose. Get in touch and register to form action committees!