National Congress of German Trade Unions

views updated

National Congress of German Trade Unions

Germany 1892


The decade from 1890 to 1900 was a crucial period of redevelopment in the German labor movement. Following the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Law in 1890, workers had more freedom to organize for economic and political purposes. The form and direction that the labor movement should take, however, was uncertain. In particular, the trade unions, which had been an important source of working-class organization during the years when organizing had been illegal, stood at a crossroads. The trade unionist Carl Legien argued that a centralized union movement, independent from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), was needed. The 1892 National Congress of German Trade Unions accepted Legien's plans and led to the official establishment of a national trade union organization. The relationship between the trade unions and the SPD, however, continued to be a source of tension. The direction taken by the trade union movement in the early 1890s would have important consequences for the future of the German labor movement as a whole.


  • 1872: The Crédit Mobilier affair, in which several officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are accused of receiving stock in exchange for favors, is the first of many scandals that are to plague Grant's second term.
  • 1877: In the face of uncertain results from the popular vote in the presidential election of 1876, the U.S. Electoral Commission awards the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes despite a slight popular majority for his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. The election of 1876 will remain the most controversial in American history for the next 124 years, until overshadowed by the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism-which Parnell himself has disavowed-makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1885: German engineer Karl Friedrich Benz builds the first true automobile.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately-and after an extremely acrimonious battle-replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed-two of them children-and sixty more are injured.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1893: New Zealand is the first nation in the world to grant the vote to women.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates-and exacerbates-the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games are held in Athens.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.

Event and Its Context

Early Attempts at Centralization

With the partial legalization of unions during the 1860s came the first attempts to organize them on a national basis. In 1868 the leader of the Lassallean Party, Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, set up the General Federation of German Workers. The federation was intended as an umbrella organization for unions associated with the Lassallean Party. Many of the leaders of the emerging trade unions, however, were opposed to von Schweitzer's highly autocratic leadership and his subordination of the unions to the political party. One such leader was Theodore York, whose ideas about the organization of the trade unions would be influential in later decades. York recognized the need for an independent centralized trade union movement. However, several factors worked together to prevent York's ideas from reaching fruition. Police harassment, the split in the social democratic movement, and suspicion from within both the union movement and the socialist movement all prevented the creation of a national trade union organization. Many of these obstacles would appear again in the early 1890s when new attempts were made to unite and centralize the union movement.

Unions Under the Anti-Socialist Law

From 1878, with the passing of Otto von Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Law, attempts to create a national organization were put aside in the struggle to keep the union movement alive. Although the law was ostensibly aimed at preventing social democrat, socialist, and communist agitation, in practice it was also used to attack the workers' right of association and combination. In the first few weeks following the passing of the Anti-Socialist Law, the authorities dissolved 17 trade unions, 63 local associations, and 116 workers' friendly societies. By the end of the year, almost all trade union activity had come to a halt. Some organizations, such as the Printers' Union, did manage to survive, but only by renouncing any connection with the social democratic movement and abandoning militant trade union aims. This was exactly what Bismarck had hoped to achieve. By 1880, however, the union movement began to stir again. The most common form of activity involved occupational craft associations organized at a local level. These groups were the basis for the spread of socialist ideas in the years when the political party was forced into exile. From the late 1880s, strike waves indicated that Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Law had failed to crush the labor movement in Germany.

Trade Unionism After 1890

The German government repealed the Anti-Socialist Law in 1890. However, the workers' right to association and combination was far from assured. The authorities were still determined to make trade union organization as difficult as possible. In addition, employer resistance to bargaining with unions had hardened in the face of strikes in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Employers had created their own national associations to oppose organized labor. The position of the trade unions also was weakened by renewed economic recession in the early 1890s. As a result, several strikes in a number of different industries ended in total failure, sapping the morale and financial resources of the unions and resulting in falling membership numbers.

The weakness of the union movement in the early 1890s could be interpreted in two ways. One argument saw the crisis as proof that the union movement was generally ineffective. Instead of being engaged in futile attempts to bargain with the capitalists for better wages and conditions, the labor movement therefore should concentrate on the political struggle. Another position saw the strike defeats as evidence that the union movement needed to be organized according to a centralized, federalist plan. The strongest champion of the latter position was the chairman of the German Association of Turners, Carl Legien.

The General Commission and the First Congress

In 1890 Legien was the main force behind the establishment of the General Commission of German Trade Unions. The main task of the General Commission was the drafting of an organizational plan for the trade unions. Legien was a powerful advocate for a strong, centralized union movement that would focus on the economic struggle between the workers and their employers. As the laws regarding association prevented the unions from being involved in politics, Legien believed it was best for the union movement to be independent of the SPD. In other words, the political and industrial wings of the labor movement should organize separately.

The plan that was eventually drafted by the General Commission was an echo of that formulated by Theodore York 20 years earlier. The existing craft associations would be centralized to create Zentralverband, or central associations, for each trade. The central associations of related trades, such as those for woodworkers or metalworkers, would then link up to form a mixed union. The General Commission would preside over these unions and take responsibility for the concerns common to all the unions, such as direction of agitation and organization in nonunionized areas, production of a union newspaper, and in urgent cases, supply of funds for strike action. The plan called for this to be funded by a levy placed on all the members of the affiliated craft associations.

This plan went up for a vote at the first National Congress of German Trade Unions, held in Halberstadt, 14-18 March 1892. At this congress, Legien presented his vision for the future of the trade union movement. He argued that the role of the unions was crucial because they contributed to the workers' struggle for freedom. The battle for improvements in wages and working conditions was legitimate because it encouraged the development of class consciousness among the workers. As most workers in Germany were not unionized, the focus of the trade unions should be on agitation and recruitment. According to Legien, this was best done through the craft organizations, as there was still a great deal of craft consciousness amongst workers. The trade unions could build upon organizational forms that were already in place. Legien reminded the union delegates that to avoid harassment under the laws of association, the trade unions should focus on economic struggle and remain politically neutral while still committed to the labor cause.

Legien's plan did not meet with complete agreement. Among his opposition were those who favored local associations affiliated to the SPD over a separate centralized union organization. To Legien, however, the nationalization and centralization of the unions seemed to be the most logical step, especially given the direction of industrial development. As companies grew and expanded to include more varieties of workers in different localities, union organization that was limited to the local level could not hope to be effective. The heated debate over the form to be taken by the union organization was a reflection of some more fundamental conflicts over the role of the unions and the direction of the labor movement. The localists focused on the political struggle, as opposed to improvements in wages and working conditions, and espoused a more radical, revolutionary form of trade unionism. Opposition to Legien's plan also came from those who were skeptical about using the occupational craft associations as the basis for union organization. This faction instead preferred industrial unions comprising both skilled and unskilled workers. These debates about the ideal form of union organization were not resolved before World War I, and different types of unions continued to exist side by side.

Legien did succeed in gaining acceptance for the plan of the General Commission, albeit in slightly modified form. The congress passed a resolution recognizing the centralized craft association as the basis of union organization. However, it only recommended that these should be grouped into centralized unions. The delegates agreed on most of the other functions of the General Commission, but they did not agree to the provision of a centralized strike fund. Again, there was resistance to placing too much power in the hands of the General Commission. Despite the dilution of Legien's plan, the first national trade union organization in Germany had been officially created.

The Trade Unions versus the SPD

The SPD was no longer the only national organization claiming to represent the interests of the workers. Thus, the congress had created a separate sphere of influence in the German labor movement. Understandably, this was cause for some concern within the SPD, and the General Commission came under attack in the SPD newspaper, Vorwarts. The SPD leadership, including August Bebel, was decidedly lukewarm in its support for Legien's efforts to strengthen the unions. Most of the SPD leaders truly believed, in the midst of the economic depression of the early 1890s, that the fall of the capitalist system was imminent. Union efforts to improve wages and working conditions therefore seemed at best irrelevant, and at worst, a dangerous distraction from the approaching struggle. Legien was sharply criticized at the 1893 party conference when he tried to get a stronger endorsement for the union movement from the party hierarchy. Bebel warned that the work of the trade unions should never be seen as a substitute for the true proletarian struggle. It was quite clear that many in the party were suspicious of Legien's long-term ambitions for the independence of the trade union movement. As the trade union movement grew in strength from the mid-1890s, the balance of power between the party and the unions shifted. The SPD hierarchy was therefore forced to reevaluate its attitude toward Legien's aims and tactics. This conflict between the approach of the trade unions and the policies of the party was the central theme in the German labor movement prior to World War I.

Key Players

Bebel, August (1840-1913): Bebel was the leader of the German Social Democratic Party. Although Bebel supported the trade union movement as a recruiting ground for the socialist movement, he regarded union goals as subordinate to those of the party. He was therefore opposed to any attempt to supplant the SPD's leadership of the German labor movement and was clearly suspicious of Legien's intentions.

Legien, Carl (1861-1920): Chairman of the General Commission of German Trade Unions, Legien was the dominant force in the trade union movement from 1890 until his death in 1920. His vision and leadership shaped the direction of the labor movement, a direction that was vindicated by the growth of the trade union movement from the mid-1890s.

York, Theodore (1830-1874): German trade union leader during the 1860s and 1870s. York's plan for the centralization of the German trade unions was the blueprint for union organization during the 1890s.



Grebing, Helga. History of the German Labour Movement.Rev. ed. Leamington Spa, UK: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1985.

Guttman, W. L. The German Social Democratic Party,1875-1933: From Ghetto to Government. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Moses, John A. Trade Unionism in Germany from Bismarck to Hitler, 1869-1933. Vol. 1, 1869-1918. London: George Prior Publishers, 1982.

Schneider, Michael. A Brief History of the German Trade Unions. Bonn, Germany: Verlag J. H. W. Dietz Nachf., 1991.

Additional Resources


Maehl, William Harvey. August Bebel: Shadow Emperor of the German Workers. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1980.

—Katrina Ford

About this article

National Congress of German Trade Unions

Updated About content Print Article


National Congress of German Trade Unions