The Verdi union has called on nurses from public hospital groups Charité and Vivantes to a three-day warning strike led by thousands of workers between Monday and Wednesday this week. The union was forced to call for action due to widespread outrage among nurses who performed superhuman duties during the pandemic and now see unbearable working conditions and low wages have become the norm.
Verdi is negotiating a so-called “relief collective agreement,” which would pay nurses bonuses or give them time off for the grueling hours they face due to chronic understaffing and other factors. Verdi also said he wanted wages at Vivantes subsidiaries to be aligned with the public sector collective agreement (TVÖD). Currently, the 2,500 employees of these subsidiaries receive several hundred euros less than those doing the same work at Vivantes.
Verdi gave the management of Vivantes et de la Charité 100 days to present a “negotiable offer”. After failing to do so, the union called a warning strike. It was ostensibly “the last warning” before a poll on indefinite industrial action, which Verdi said would start on August 30 if there was no movement in the negotiations.
The workers’ response to the partial strike has been strong. Workers at the eight Vivantes hospitals and the three Charity campuses want to strike, and entire departments are expected to be closed by Tuesday morning. According to Berliner Tagesspiegel, Charité has already canceled 2,000 appointments with missed treatments to be made up after Wednesday. Almost all services are concerned, from surgery and dermatology to geriatrics and gastroenterology. During this period, fewer beds will be available in the intensive care units.
Widespread popular support
The strike won broad public support. Messages of solidarity are accumulating on the site of the broadcaster rbb24, which regularly reports on labor disputes and working conditions in hospitals. “Good luck with the strike, stand firm! “,” Hang on! “And” I wish the workers in the sector the best of luck in their industrial action! Enough of turning a profit off the backs of workers and patients, ”are some of the comments.
Many commentators note the hypocritical praise nurses received from business leaders, politicians and the media over the past year and how disrespectful they are today. “This is how you treat the heroes?” Understood; the real “heroes” all want to be in the Bundestag [parliament]. No wonder with this salary.
“A year ago, nurses, careers etc. were applauded for their constant willingness to work, often to the point of exhaustion. With the pandemic, the whole dilemma of our society has become evident. … Those who blow millions on the absurd stranger [military] missions should start doing their jobs better! “
Other comments denounce the enrichment of those at the top of society. “Billions are thrown in the mouths of drug companies and yet there is no money for nurses,” said one commentator. Another added: “Financialization continues in the health sector as well. The extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth continues. It is time for this to finally end.
The management of the two hospital groups reacted with ruthless arrogance to the concerns of the strikers. Vivantes said it would not agree to a collective agreement because the nation’s shortage of skilled workers means a reduction in nurses’ workloads would force the company to cut from 360 to 750 beds. Therefore, the company should lay off doctors and other non-nurses. “The result would be a reduction from 870 to 1,300 jobs and an additional deficit of 25 to 45 million euros,” said management.
This blackmail leaves you speechless. Instead of making the nursing profession more attractive through better working conditions and pay, Vivantes accuses nurses of reducing beds and jobs because they refuse to be fully exploited.
Indeed, the miserable working conditions and decades of austerity imposed on the health system are responsible for the shortage of qualified personnel. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Germany was short of around 120,000 nurses. During the pandemic, the attrition rate increased.
According to surveys, about a third of nurses in the critical care sector are considering leaving the profession or at least reducing their working hours. The reason cited by 72 percent of respondents is overwork. Ninety-six percent feel abandoned by policy makers.
At the company’s request, the Berlin employment tribunal banned a strike last week at Vivantes subsidiaries, which provide catering and laundry services. The court justified its attack on the right to strike by saying that there was no emergency service agreement in place between Verdi and the company. Without such an agreement, a strike could endanger the lives and physical integrity of patients, the court said.
Verdi offered a full emergency service contract, but the company rejected it after days of negotiations, arguing it was up to management to develop such a plan. If the decision is upheld on appeal, it would set a dangerous precedent for companies to make strikes ineffective at will. “This view of the court shocks us,” said Verdi spokesman Tim Graumann, “because it would mean employers could dictate emergency services.”
Verdi’s double game
Verdi is playing a despicable double game in this dispute. Although the industrial action enjoys wide support among the workforce and the population, the union is begging and obsequiously pleading for a rotten compromise.
Last Friday, the union’s collective bargaining committee issued a “call to hospital management and state politicians” under the headline “Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate! It begins with the words: “The collective bargaining committees of the subsidiaries of Vivantes, Vivantes proper and Charité declare: We do not intend to strike! He continues in this style. “We are ready to negotiate. At any time, ”say Verdi officials on several occasions.
The union bureaucrats do not shy away from self-humiliation to prove that they are determined to prevent an escalation of the conflict at all costs. The hospital strike coincides with the closure of urban transport trains in Berlin by members of the GDL railway union and large protests by Siemens workers against the planned closure of the gas turbine plant, the largest industrial plant in the city.
Verdi is in cahoots with the Berlin Senate (state executive), which is made up of a coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), the Left Party and the Greens. Most Verdi officials are members of one of these three parties and often move from union to political office and vice versa. Now they are feigning outrage that the hospital management is allegedly acting contrary to the will of the Senate.
In in-depth talks, members of state parliament from all three ruling parties and Free Democrats (FDP) and Christian Democrats (CDU), assured Verdi they supported the demand for minimum staffing levels , according to the appeal of the union’s collective bargaining committee. “This is why we, as health workers, do not understand how it is possible that, while all the parties in parliament elected by the citizens defend a common position, the hospital management of public enterprises do not behave. according to this basic position. . “
The reason is easy to understand. The two hospital groups, wholly owned by the state but managed according to the principles of private profit, were created by the Senate to systematically lower wages and working conditions and make health a source of profit.
The Vivantes group, founded in 2001, now supervises around a third of hospital patients in Berlin. It employs nearly 18,000 people, including 13,000 full-time, and generates annual sales of 1.5 billion euros. Its senior executives collect more than half a million euros per year to keep personnel costs low and the profitability of the group.
These austerity measures have been implemented with the full support of Verdi, who has worked and continues to work closely with the Senate.
In 2016, for example, the employees of the Charity lived through the “historic” collective agreement negotiated by Verdi, by which the personnel were quite simply cheated. Even union representatives had to admit time and time again that staffing targets were barely being met.
The struggle of cleaning and kitchen staff for adequate wages has also been sabotaged by Verdi for years. Verdi will betray the workers of the Vivantes subsidiaries as he did with the charity service company CFM (Charité-Facility-Management).
At CFM, which split 15 years ago to introduce low wages, strikes and protests have been countless. They were all sold by Verdi without any improvement for the workers. After rising protests, Verdi and the Berlin Senate launched the CFM buyout in 2019 and last year agreed to a collective agreement for CFM workers that contains no or only minimal improvements.
Backstage talks are once again taking place between the Senate, Verdi and hospital management over how to lead the strike into harmless channels and strangle it. According to Tagesspiegel, discussions have already taken place between Finance Senator (Minister of State) Matthias Kollatz (SPD) and Verdi officials. Significantly, Kollatz is also the head of Vivantes’ supervisory board.
All over the world, workers are living the same experience with the reprehensible role of unions. In Worcester, Massachusetts in the United States, 700 nurses employed by hospital operator Tenet have been on strike for nearly six months. Although their strike has strong support, the union isolates it to keep it under control.
In Quebec, Canada, health unions negotiated an agreement with the regional government against the will of workers, paving the way for further attacks on wages and working conditions. The list could go on and on. Workers everywhere face the same attacks and problems. A victorious fight against this can only be waged in opposition to the unions and parties responsible for the disaster in the health sector.
The Sozialistische Gleichheitspartei (Socialist Equality Party, SGP) calls for the formation of independent grassroots committees by strikers to organize a fight against hospital management and mobilize the necessary support. The Fourth International, to which the SGP belongs as a German section, launched the International Workers’ Alliance of Grassroots Committees on May 1 to coordinate struggles in different factories, industries and countries.
Privatization and all cuts in the health sector must be reversed. Hospitals and other health facilities must be transformed into public services and democratically controlled by the workers. This is the only way to guarantee decent wages and humane working conditions. This is what the SGP is defending in the upcoming elections to the Bundestag (federal parliament) and the Berlin Senate.