August 20, 2015

1949. The Occupation Powers in Berlin Clash Over Strike

The Berlin Rail Workers' Strike Ends
"Berlin 1949: Preparing a banner over the road blocks which are to be removed from the Russian-American sector boundary. The banner, to mark the imminent end of the Berlin blockade, reads, 'The Sector of Freedom welcomes the Fighters for Freedom and Right'" (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 18, 1949

I was awakened early this morning by an argument between a group of Germans in front of my house. Berliners, being what they are, seem to always conduct their disputes at the top of their voices.

Outside was stalled a big truck in which about twenty-five people were standing. It was one of the auxiliary freight trucks which the city government has put into service to carry passengers while the elevated rail system is shut down by the strike. There are scores of these trucks bumping through the western sectors of Berlin, usually with a step ladder hanging on the back so the people can clamber in and out.

When this particular truck stalled in front of the house this morning, it was too much for one man who started complaining about the rail strike. It so happened that one of the strikers was also in the crowd, and as the truck drew away, the different factions were still shouting at one another.

This dispute over the Berlin railroad strike now has repercussions reaching from Moscow to Washington. The walkout of 14,000 anti-Communist union members must be settled before rail traffic into the city can be resumed; before Berlin is completely un-blockaded. The whole situation has been tossed into the laps of the Big Four foreign ministers.

In this sense, here in Berlin the Cold War between East and West has become basically a labor dispute, the kind of dispute we in America settle through negotiation and concession month after month.

It was exactly a month ago today that the independent UGO (Unabhängige Gewerkschaftsopposition [independent trade union opposition]) workers walked out. Violence in the first two weeks of the strike cost two lives, and approximately a thousand persons were injured.

The official attitude of all four of the occupation powers is that it is purely a German affair, although we claim the Russians, who control the elevated railroad, could settle it if they so wanted. The Soviet military government accuses us of backing the strikers and prolonging the walkout.

However, from the point of view of the German rail workers who have shut down the elevated, this is a dispute between them and the pro-Communist management. In other words, 14,000 Berlin railroad men are stacking their cause up against the policies of the Soviet Union. It is not the most comfortable position in the world considering that they are staging this strike one hundred miles inside the Soviet zone.

The issues here were originally the union's demands that rail workers who live and work in West Berlin get their pay in West marks, but today the issue is much more basic. As a matter of fact, it is the issue over which the entire Cold War is being fought: the concept of individual freedom as it is practiced by democracy and communism.

In the early days of the Berlin strike when the rioting was going on, Paul Markgraf, chief of the East Berlin police, announced that any striker caught hampering the work of the elevated railroad or damaging its property would be liable to arrest and sentence—which could include the death sentence. However, the Berlin trade unionist doesn't scare easily, and the strikers used their own methods to shut down the elevated. They removed sections of track and, where they could, took away elements that prevented operation of the electric control towers. However, no permanent damage has been done.

But the anti-Communist strikers have not forgotten the threat from the Communist side of the town.

The Russian-directed management made an important concession last week when it offered to pay sixty percent of the strikers' wages in West marks. However, the directorate made the offer through the Communist-controlled labor union of East Berlin. There was no recognition of the independent union, a fact that aroused much suspicion. Incidentally, the independent UGO union contains two thirds of the elevated rail workers.

Then General Frank Howley, American military commandant, stepped in in an attempt to bring about a compromise settlement. He went to the West Berlin city government. It agreed to provide another fifteen percent of West mark wages, making a total of seventy-five percent in all. Next, Howley went to the Soviet transport chief, General Kvashnin, and got his verbal assurance that there would be no reprisals against the strikers.

Following this, a union meeting was called. In a letter to the strikers, Howley said he thought the compromise offer was reasonable. Oberbürgermeister Ernst Reuter urged the men to accept and go back to work. Even the union leaders agreed. But there was strenuous opposition from the rank and file.

"How do we know that we won't be thrown into a Communist jail the minute we climb back on the trains and get into the Russian sector of the city?" Howley's letter reassured them of Kvashnin's promise.

The UGO leadership then arranged to hold a referendum. They even specified that seventy-five percent of the membership would have to oppose going back to work in order to continue the strike.

But on Tuesday, the morning the strikers were to make their decision, the Communist press and radio did a surprising and puzzling thing. They said that the Soviet military government had given no assurances to Howley or anyone else that reprisals would not be taken.

After that, the result was obvious. The skeptical strikers voted, not seventy-five percent, but eighty-five percent to continue their walkout.

This was the last of a good many "last straws." General Howley, who failed to get the Russian guarantee in writing, naturally shouted "double-cross."

As a labor dispute, this is the strangest one that I have ever covered. The union, representing the majority of the workers involved, cannot get recognition. The management, which is the Soviet transportation authorities, have acted in exceedingly bad faith by first giving and then withdrawing assurances that would have settled the strike.

But let's face it. This is more than a labor dispute. The independent trade union, UGO, is one of the main bastions of opposition to the Communists in Berlin. Break the union, and the boys from the east side of the town would have achieved a major step in gaining complete control of this city.

The next two days will see whether the foreign ministers can reach any kind of agreement on the Berlin crisis and on restoring East-West trade in this divided country.

But the people of Berlin do not expect the Americans, the British, or the French to get any better treatment than that given to anti-Communist strikers here.

The fact is that, despite Russian assurances that the blockade of Berlin would be lifted last May 12, the main artery of transport—the railroad traffic—is halted. The Anglo-American airlift continues to be the main source of supply to this city.

The Soviet military government of Berlin cannot technically be blamed for the blockade of rail traffic. But the Russians here most certainly can be charged with a great lack of interest in settling the strike that is causing the partial blockade—an official disinterest that adds up to bad faith on their former promise to lift the economic siege of Berlin.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 22, 1949

The Soviet military government has reaffirmed its desire to see an end to the Berlin elevated railway strike, but this morning the striking anti-Communist union again declined to go back to work until the Russians order recognition of their independent union and give definite assurance in writing that there will be no reprisals against their membership.

The Russian statement came last night in a letter from General Kvashnin, Soviet transportation chief, to the three Western commandants. Kvashnin confirmed a conversation he had earlier with America's General Howley, saying that the Russian-controlled rail management will not take any sanctions against the strikers regardless of the union to which they belong. He added that the Soviet desire to end the strike is proved by the compromise offer to pay sixty percent of the strikers' wages in West marks.

In light of this latest Russian statement, the executive board of the striking union held an extraordinary meeting this morning. After two hours of discussion, the union leaders decided that the letter from Kvashnin was not enough for them to call off the strike. They demanded again that the railroad management deal with the strikers themselves—which would mean recognition of the union. The Russian-controlled directorate refuses to do this because the independent union is anti-Communist.

The Kvashnin letter is important for one reason. It was dated June 20—Monday, the day the Paris foreign ministers' conference ended. The letter is extremely conciliatory—a great departure from the other communications the Western commandants have exchanged with the Russians concerning the Berlin strike. These communications were brusque and sometimes downright rude.

In other words, General Kvashnin's letter may be the beginning of a new Soviet policy of four-power cooperation in Berlin. If it is, then we will see now the first fruits of the foreign ministers' conference. But fingers are still crossed here.

Lawrence Wilkinson, economic adviser for the American military government, says he expects to begin four-power conferences on trade and transportation this week, but that no definite date has been set.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 24, 1949

Everybody wants to end the Berlin elevated strike this morning, but no one knows how to do it.

The 14,00 anti-Communist rail workers, who are tying up railroad traffic into this city, find themselves in the position of a man who has a tiger by the tail. They can't let go.

The independent rail union, which called the walkout five weeks ago today, agreed to send three thousand of its members back to work in order to break the log jam of freight trains tied up on the outskirts of Berlin. This emergency service would only allow rail traffic to move between the Western zones and Berlin. The actual strike of the elevated line would remain in force.

However, the Russians say they will not accept any trains moved by the union's emergency services; that this is an infringement of management rights which they control. The British also condemn the emergency service as unworkable, although the British commander this morning rescinded yesterday's order barring all strikers from railroad property. The independent union is now allowed in the yards and roundhouses to repair any strike damage in preparation for traffic.

So the situation this morning is that part of the strikers are back at work getting Berlin elevated ready for traffic under the emergency service program. However, it is unlikely that any trains will move because the Russians have to give clearance to any trains going through their zone, and they disapprove of the plan.

The main strike issue now is recognition of the anti-Communist union, which the Russians refuse to do, and the question of security of the strikers if they return to work.

General Pavel Kvashnin, head of the Soviet transportation section here, put in writing in a letter to the Western commandants an assurance that no reprisals would be taken.

But the strikers' attitude is best summed up this morning by Franz Neumann, head of Berlin's Social Democratic Party. "The strike would be ended," Neumann declared, "if the strikers were convinced that the words of all generals are words of honor. However, there are too many honest democrats who have disappeared into concentration camps...and all the words of the Western Allies could not free them."

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 26, 1949

The Berlin rail strike will end within forty-eight hours.

This is the prediction this morning of Western military government officials and leaders of the striking railroad union.

For the past five hours, delegates of the 14,000 strikers have been in executive session to accept or reject a decision by the American, British, and French commandants that the welfare of Berlin and the compromise work agreement no longer justifies the walkout.

Reports from the union meeting are that there seems to be every likelihood that the men will decide to end this six-week-old strike.

The break in the rail crisis came late yesterday when the three Western commandants emerged with a formula which they deemed fair and meeting the demands of the independent anti-Communist union.

The Western authorities said the men would get their full pay in West marks. The strikers have the assurance of the Russian transport authority that no reprisals would be taken against them.

Thus the Western military governments are ordering that no more unemployment benefits be paid out to the strikers from Tuesday on. The formula, however, did provide for rail workers who feared personal reprisals by the Communist rail management. If these men signed statements that they were quitting the railroad business, and also signed statements that they will not interfere with the operation of the elevated line, then they would continue to be eligible for unemployment benefits and would be assisted in finding new employment in other industries.

The only major demand which the strikers did not achieve in their walkout was recognition of their union by the Russian-controlled management.

Ending of the strike does not mean that the struggle between Eastern and Western Berlin is ended. Rather, it will become intensified.

But if the strikers vote to return to work under the conditions set down by the Western occupation powers, it will be the first fruit of the modus vivendi agreement reached last week in Paris.

The little blockade of Berlin will be ended, and we will be able to slacken operations of our expensive airlift.

However, the success of the new four-power "live and let live" policy in Germany now depends upon the spirit in which this policy is prosecuted by the Russians.

If they order or allow terrorism against the strikers who return to work on the Berlin elevated, then the strike will go on again, and we will be right back where we started.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 27, 1949

The trains are scheduled to roll in Berlin at eight o'clock tomorrow morning, thus bringing an end to the 37 day strike and a considerable relieving of East-West tension in this bisected city.

Repair gangs are working this morning to restore the elevated trackage to operational condition. However, the Russian-controlled rail management says that full schedules may be somewhat delayed tomorrow until their own inspectors can go over the elevated route to make sure everything is in shape.

The 14,000 anti-Communist strikers voted to return to work yesterday under the Western Power ultimatum that grants them one hundred percent pay in West marks and guarantees security against reprisals.

The end of the elevated strike means that the so-called "little blockade" of Berlin will be lifted and that rail traffic will once again become the main supply route into this city, replacing airlift deliveries. However, Air Force officials say the aerial supply of the city will continue on a restricted basis until ordered discontinued by the highest officials.

Some forty trains are waiting to be unloaded or stacked up on the outskirts of the city, waiting to be unloaded or stacked up on the outskirts of the city and waiting to be shunted into Berlin rail yards for unloading. Because of this backlog, it is not expected that regular freight schedules will be operated for several days.

More than seventy percent of the striking rail workers are expected to return to their jobs. Those who are most likely to refuse to return to work for fear of Communist reprisals are some 350 engineers of the "brigade trains" which carry reparations from the West deep into the Soviet zone.

However, it must be emphasized that the settlement of the Berlin strike does not mean the end of the Communist struggle to control this city. It is not the end of the Cold War here, but rather the beginning of a new phase of the battle.

The first major Four Power meeting in Berlin in more than a year of blockade crisis is scheduled for the next few days. The deputy military governors of all four occupation powers will sit down to work out economic and trade agreements between the East and West.

So far, the modus vivendi agreement of Paris appears to be working, but the political climate in this city is too uncertain to predict how long the diplomatic calm will last.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.


Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 28, 1949

The international pressure has been taken off Berlin today. In a half hour, the deputy military governors of America, Russia, Britain, and France will hold their first meeting in nine months to again make the governing of the two occupied Germanies a four-power responsibility.

This evening the freight trains will begin arriving with supplies from the West, thus ending the little blockade of Berlin.

Most of the 14,000 striking rail workers are back at work this morning. They reported to their jobs without incident. The Berlin elevated railroad, however, will probably not get its city traffic moving until tomorrow. Inspectors of the Russian-controlled management are now going over all trackage to make sure it is in shape.

Thus the news from Berlin is mostly good this morning.

What has happened under the modus vivendi agreement between the Big Four powers is that the East-West struggle in Germany has been turned back to the Germans, with the interested nations calling the signals from the bench.

The illusion is thus created that the Germans will settle their own fate in the future. In the final analysis, this will be true, but in the coming months it will be Russia which will run the training table in East Germany; and in the West, the democracies will supply the equipment for the continuing struggle for power in Germany.

The grand illusion created by this situation is that, in case there is trouble in Germany, the world will not be plunged into war—that only the Germans will get hurt. But believe me, this is an illusion.

However, the fact remains that in Germany as a whole, and in Berlin in particular, the possibility of an international incident which might lead to open conflict has been greatly narrowed by the "live and let live" agreement between the Big Powers.

Perhaps we are due for a breathing spell in the East-West Cold War. We certainly have one coming.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.