Internet strike at the GMD FIRST institute

October 1998 witnessed the start of what may have been the first "internet strike", at the GMD FIRST research institute in Berlin, Germany. Employees were protesting against the threat of wage cuts.

On 19 October 1998, workers at the GMD FIRST institute in Berlin- a research centre for computer science owned by the federal government with minority shares held by the states of Nordrhein-Westfalen, Hessen and Berlin - launched what may be the first "internet strike". The employees were protesting against the threat of wage cuts.

In Berlin, GMD runs two institutes - FOKUS for open communication systems and FIRST for computer architecture and software technology. GMD has 1,200 employees, 120 of whom work at FIRST, which was moved in 1992 from Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin to Adlershof in the eastern part. As part of an agreement related to this move, maintenance of current wages and benefits was agreed for active employees, including the continuation of wage payments at the west German level.

Since the 1980s, there have been three company-level framework agreements on employment conditions (Manteltarifverträge) at GMD - two for white-collar workers and one for blue-collar workers. The union side signatories to the two agreements for white-collar workers are the public services and transport workers' union (Gewerkschaft Öffentliche Dienste, Transport und Verkehr, ÖTV) and the German Union for Salaried Employees (Deutsche Angestelltengewerkschaft, DAG) respectively. The blue-collar workers' agreement is signed by ÖTV. The agreements essentially link GMD salaries to public services pay agreements.

Under a so-called "non-application agreement" with DAG, signed on 24 September 1990, eastern Germany was excluded from the union's GMD framework agreement. The ÖTV framework agreement for white-collar workers was suspended in 1987 and when it was re-enacted in 1991, GMD intended to pay eastern wages in the future, but neglected to include this in the agreement. Nevertheless, GMD classified the employees in Adlershof according to eastern pay rates. The works council contested this arrangement. After a lawsuit in the state and federal Labour Courts, management was forced to pay full west German salaries and wages at FIRST in east Berlin. GMD has had to pay extra salaries totalling about DEM 3 million for the past six years.

On 4 December 1997, the GMD supervisory board decided to terminate the ÖTV framework agreement for white-collar workers at the next possible date. As a result, the Federal Ministry of Interior, acting for management under power of attorney, on 25 June 1998 declared the termination of the agreement by 30 September 1998. In addition, the Ministry terminated the agreement with DAG and the ÖTV agreement for blue-collar workers. The latter two terminations were effected without express power of attorney from the GMD supervisory board.

On 21 July 1998, ÖTV demanded negotiations with GMD about the reinstatement of the framework agreements and insisted on equal pay levels for east and west. This goal was supported by almost all employees of the institute in an open letter on 21 September. According to GMD employees, there is no indication of lower productivity at Adlershof than at GMD sites in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Darmstadt or Sankt Augustin. As a response, the Federal Ministry of Interior offered on 24 September to reinstate the agreements, but only for the western institutes. However, ÖTV and DAG still demanded negotiations for all GMD sites.

GMD terminated the agreements with effect from 1 October 1998, with the intention of forcing a reduction in pay to the east German level at the institute. At the moment, no binding statements have been made about future pay at the institute. Management has made only verbal statements that at the renewal of employment contracts, employees in eastern Germany will be excluded from future salary raises until their frozen salaries equal the eastern German level. New contracts will generally be concluded at eastern rates - currently 86.5% of the western level.

As a consequence, GMD employees launched a "strike" on GMD's World-Wide Web pages on 19 October. In order to demonstrate the amount of pay reduction with which they are threatened, they made 13.5% of each page unreadable.

On 2 November 1998, the Federal Ministry of Interior proposed negotiations to begin on 24 November 1998, and the protest was subsequently suspended. The talks between representatives of ÖTV, DAG and the employer side yielded the following results:

  • the employers promised to participate in collective bargaining after the completion of the 1999 bargaining round for the public sector;
  • until then, current employees at FIRST and the other GMD institutes will suffer no disadvantages; and
  • current permanent and fixed-term contract employees will be paid at west German levels. Newly hired employees will be paid at east German levels. There will be no redundancies among the first group in order to reemploy them at lower pay levels.
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