A “Rent Cap Moment” for Mobility?
Using legal loopholes and grey areas to expand the playing field
The recommendations proposed by Bernd Riexinger (2019) and Die Linke for a structural socio-ecological transformation of the automotive industry and a real mobility transition are well-founded and, were they to be implemented, also dangerous. Above all, they represent a threat to automotive corporations in their current form, but given that they are hardly allies in the struggle to implement the transition in mobility, should be implemented against their interests.
However, this path would also represent a threat to auto industry employees and their trade union IG Metall. The necessary goal of putting an end to the use of the internal combustion engine and halving automobile production by 2030 threatens numerous jobs as well as the core of the trade unions’ organizing power; namely, the well-organized core workforce of large companies with their high standards for collective bargaining, which in turn set the tone for working conditions in other companies, and are also supposed to constitute the power base required for the safeguarding of social achievements (together with their legal protection) and a prerequisite for labour organising in other sectors (for more details see Candeias 2011). This is the crux of the debate surrounding the mobility transition.
The present proposal, however, does in fact hold the right answer. The massive expansion of a different type of mobility relying mainly on public transport will require many elements of alternative production: the development and expansion of e-bus systems (overhead lines, autonomous buses, etc.), minibuses and on-call buses, specialized commercial vehicles and so on; the production of rail vehicles (suburban and underground trains, trams, regional and long-distance trains, freight trains); smart traffic management systems; the partial expansion of energy and rail infrastructure; the development of environmentally friendly lightweight construction materials; and zero-carbon steel production, among many other things. And this is before mentioning the large number of workers that would be needed in public transport, rail transport, or in civil engineering for infrastructure reconstruction, focusing only on the workforce required in core areas of the metal industry.
Excursus: Creating New Employment through Alternative Production
According to de.statista.com, 4.66 million cars were produced in Germany in 2019, compared to 5.65 million in 2017. In just two years, the number of cars produced dropped by nearly one million. This shows that the goal of halving automobile production by 2030 and switching to electro-mobility could be achieved through a comparatively slow process of reducing production by 230,000 cars per year.
If we assume there are approx. 800,000 workers involved in auto production (incl. suppliers working mainly for the automotive industry) and take into account a loss of employment (here I am drawing on an estimate by Stephan Krull and my own calculations) of approx. 150,000 jobs due to a shrinkage in capacity, i.e., surplus capacities, and rationalization as well as another approx. 100,000 jobs due to conversion to e-mobility, we end up with approx. 550,000 employees still active in operations.
If we assume, very roughly, a simple halving of jobs, some 275,000 employees would be in need (beyond any rationalization measures) of a replacement job as a result of socio-ecological restructuring. If we add to this the compensatory demographic changes (approx. 200,000 employees will retire within the next ten years; the average age in the automotive industry is approx. 45 years) as well as the sensible reduction of working hours in the industry to 30 hours (approx. 100,000 additional workers), automotive production would lose another approx. 225,000 jobs.
Estimated additional workforces needed in other areas of alternative production would include:
an additional 100,000 employees in rail vehicle construction, wagon and railcar production (for suburban and underground railways, trams, regional and long-distance trains, freight trains) as well as for repair workshops (maintenance) (Görlitz, Bautzen, Hennigsdorf, Salzgitter, Kassel, Mannheim, Siegen, Stendal and Dessau);
an additional 100,000 employees for the development and expansion of the production of e-bus systems (overhead contact lines, autonomous buses etc.), minibuses and on-call buses, specialized commercial vehicles etc. (including for moderate levels of export production);
additional labour demand in steel production—at that point CO2 neutral—and declining demand from auto production should more or less balance each other out;
an additional 10,000 employees for the production of cargo and e-bikes;
added to this would be workers needed for the development and construction of smart traffic control systems, the expansion of additional energy infrastructure, and so on.
These figures do not yet include the large number of workers needed for the operation of public transport and railways or for engineering the reconstruction of infrastructures. We are speaking only of the core areas of the metal industry. It is estimated that over 220,000 employees would be needed here alone. The demand would be even higher if we were to demand reduced-hours full-time contracts for all employees. That would add an additional 75,000 jobs to a total of nearly 300,000 workers needed overall.
Also not included in this are the enormous demands that would arise in the area of social infrastructure (see RLS study by Heintze, Ötsch, and Troost, 2020), estimated at a minimum of one million workers, a number that needs urgent revaluation.
Against the Corporations but on the Side of Workers
The transformation requires an incredible amount of labour power. But this does not mean that employees will always be able to stay in the same company or the same industry. To ensure that a socio-ecological transformation is not riddled with anxiety (or even opposed by those affected), the aforementioned position paper proposes a job guarantee: everyone who wants to work should have the right to publicly financed, unionized work with “reduced full-time” hours. Not just less work, but other kinds of work and ways of working differently are needed.
Corporations will not voluntarily participate in this transition. They are counting on the realization of invested capital and high profits from the sale of SUVs (preferably electric), and “riding the horse until it is dead”, according one automobile company employee (see Holzschuh et al. 2020, 7). Investments in uncertain business areas, smaller (e-)cars, or even conversion should not be expected. Appropriately, state capital assistance would have to be used as a lever to push for alternative production and participatory ownership or the full communalization of companies.
Public involvement would need to be combined with increased participation from employees, trade unions, environmental associations, and residents in the regions affected, for instance through the creation of regional consulting bodies that get to decide on concrete steps for how to convert the automotive group into an environmentally sustainable service provider of public mobility.
Such a conversion can only succeed if it is anchored in broad participation. People living in the affected regions, especially those employed in the industry, know that structural change is coming. It would be useful to build on the enormous knowledge and the pride that employees take in their work and its use value.
Can we achieve a socio-ecological restructuring of heavy industry that will simultaneously secure jobs—not least in the metal sector—and the future of this planet? Here, too, Die Linke's proposal contains the right kind of arguments.
Perhaps we should go one step further, since collectivizing corporations would be an almost impossible task. Even if large government contracts were to introduce better planning security and private companies expanded their production, this would remain only an additional segment for the corporations and costs would tend to increase in relation to expected returns.
So why not set up a public company for the alternative production of necessary electric buses, trams, and trains, strictly oriented toward the public good, a kind of “mobility-focused SEO fair to all concerned”? That would be a project for the federal level. However, a start could already be made at the regional and municipal level. Just as with the construction of housing, where the discussion is moving in the direction of the Bauhütte, municipal associations could initiate their own production sites for different types of e-buses supervised by triads of state governments and various municipalities. In fact, the restructuring of the automotive industry and a different material infrastructure for the shift in mobility can only be achieved through changing ownership structures.
Achievable and Game-Changing Goals for Equitable Mobility
Even if the structural transformation of the automotive industry, as a central pillar of Germany’s export industry and overall economic model, is difficult to achieve, this will remain a central issue for the discursive and alliance politics of the left. We are unlikely to be able to push our agenda on this issue much further in the near future. This is different, for instance, from the mobility shift taking place in cities, where we see a lot of change on the ground, numerous active initiatives, and where Die Linke is active in either local or state government, and which can be linked to positive and realizable demands.
Winfried Wolf sums up the alternative like this: the proportion of bicycle traffic on all transport routes in Germany could be increased to 30 to 40 percent in all cities (in Copenhagen, it is more than 50%). The proportion of footpaths on all routes (facilitated by a policy that promotes decentralization and creates, for instance, comprehensive shopping and leisure facilities in local areas) can take up 20 to 25 percent. Public transport’s share of overall traffic load can reach 35-40 percent (Zurich already has more than 40 percent today). Depending on the mix, which will vary from city to city, an overall structure emerges in which car traffic makes up even less than ten percent of total traffic volume.
This remaining portion should then largely consist of car sharing, preferably e-cars, possibly fuel cell buses, and perhaps even three-litre cars. Additionally, rural areas—where around 25 percent of the population lives—can be connected to a regular, comfortable public transport system, usually through buses. This is already the case in Switzerland. Only a mobility network of this kind can meet the climate targets the country has set itself and provide an improved quality of life (cf. Wolf 2020).
We need a campaign that will focus, first and foremost, on doing things that are not only interesting in terms of content and programmatically correct, but that can also produce a shift in societal perspective by generating an exemplary and productive kind of conflict capable of attaining mass visibility. In short: what could a rent cap for mobility look like?
We need forward-looking but sufficiently concrete goals: where do we want to be in ten years? An end to the predominance of the internal combustion engine and the halving of car production by 2030 are essential steps on the path towards meeting the positive goals of largely car-free (inner)cities, a toll-free, (multimodal) well-developed, and climate-neutral public transport system, and 50% cheaper regional and long-distance rail transport (as well as comfortable cycle path networks), with the alliance of eco-mobility options (consisting of bus, train, transport, cycling, and improved pedestrian accessibility) accounting for 80% of total traffic volume.
Who are the likely enemies and who the potential allies? Where are the pressure points (more research would be needed on issues such as “Why can’t trams or subway cars be delivered?”)? all, Above all, however, we need to know where to begin and with whom. Die Linke’s position paper lists numerous starting points and projects. Which present conflicts are winnable and which groundbreaking short-term goals or initial projects should take priority?
Mobility for everyone: free public transport for students and apprentices (already in effect in Berlin, for instance), and then shortly thereafter also for senior citizens and Hartz IV recipients, a €365 ticket available to everyone, and, in the long run, universal free local public transport. This should be co-financed through a local transport tax on companies, which is also likely to be met with resistance (instead of just engaging with reluctant municipalities).
More mobility: (Increase of the federal government’s climate package by) €20 billion in investment funds for municipalities to expand their public transport networks and ensure appropriate staffing levels (the slogan “More of you is better for us all” is of particular relevance to the upcoming collective bargaining round for public transport employees). The environmentally harmful subsidies for car and air traffic alone add up to €29 billion every year and should instead be redirected toward the expansion of eco-mobility options. Such investments could also be accompanied by additional borrowing. This would require putting pressure on the federal government but also an end to the debt ceiling (or the removal of corresponding investments) in order to create more leeway for state and local governments. This could be assisted via a corresponding Bundesrat initiative, for instance, as well as rebellious state governments that know how to push against and circumvent the debt ceiling as far as possible.
Rail for everyone: Die Linke’s position paper demands (an increase of the climate package by) €9 billion per year in investment funds for the national railway, with a particular focus on regional transport. A “BahnCard50 for everyone” could help accomplish a doubling of train frequency—halving of prices with “BahnCard50 for all“. Privatized lines should in principle be returned under the control of the national railway company or re-communalized (keyword: S-Bahn). At the same time, a ban on (or high surcharges for) domestic flights would create additional incentives for passengers to use the more environmentally friendly rail alternative (see Heuwieser in this issue for more on this topic). Together with Fridays for Future, the broader climate change movement, and the railway unions, more pressure can be applied to the federal government to finance an accessible rail network that is oriented toward the public good (see Waßmuth in this issue for more on this topic).
Creating space for eco-mobility options and for recreation, games, and green corridors through fair land-use planning or the designation of car-free inner-city zones (such as in Madrid); alternatively, the large-scale designation of meeting zones/play streets/shared spaces (with walking speed in effect for vehicles, priority given to pedestrians, and closed to through traffic) in all side streets (using the “superblock” concept with only limited parking spaces for people with health impediments and car/bike-sharing). Extensive road reconstruction as seen with regard to the overly ambitious meeting zones is unnecessary. Roads could initially be closed to traffic using simple bollards with traffic signs indicating the corresponding zones. In order to prevent all traffic from being diverted onto the main roads (which would place an unacceptable burden on local residents), these would generally have to be converted to three-lane roads, with each lane dedicated to different mode of transport (e.g. one for cars, one for public transport, and one for bicycles) at the expense of parking space. There are many obstacles at the level of local administration (see Petri in this issue) or in terms of the federal traffic regulations (see Leidig in this issue). However, there are numerous initiatives pushing forward on these issues, and mobility transition alliances could help drive the implementation further. There is a great deal of support for this among the general population, including among car drivers. Rebellious municipalities and districts could test the limits of the current legal situation. It is also worth pointing out that where such models have already been implemented, they have led to a revival of the retail sector.
Deceleration and safety: a general speed limit of 30km/h in residential areas. This is already being gradually implemented on central, busy roads and would have to be extended successively over entire cities (and villages). This is a quick and extremely effective measure justified by both safety concerns and the climate emergency.
With whom? The upcoming collective bargaining round for public transport employees presents an immediate opportunity to combine demands for improving and reducing the cost of public transport with demands for improving the working conditions of employees as well as for making available the necessary investment and budgetary resources.
In other words, it is an opportunity to unite trade union efforts with the climate movement. Together with ver.di, Fridays for Future, and other relevant groups, the RLS will seek to facilitate this early in the coming year. This will certainly involve rebellious local governmental initiatives for finding ways around the debt ceiling that has so far prevented investments or where the designation of car-free zones has been severely restricted because it does not fall under the purview of municipalities. In Madrid, for example, the municipality was able to force a change in the interpretation of the law by invoking inhabitants’ right to healthy living conditions.
The legal basis for declaring a climate emergency should also be investigated further. The dispute surrounding the rent cap in Berlin effectively shows that legal loopholes and grey areas can be used to expand the playing field, if such conflicts are approached with purpose and with adequate preparation.
Mario Candeias is the director of the Institute for Critical Social Analysis at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. This article originally appeared in LuXemburg. The English language version was translated by Wanda Vrasti and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective and first appeared on the Website of the rosa luxemburg stiftung. Reproduced with the author's permission.
Candeias, Mario, Strategische Probleme eines gerechten Übergangs, LuXemburg, vol. 7, pp. 90-97, .
Institut für Gesellschaftsanalyse, Ein Gelegenheitsfenster für linke Politik? Wie weiter in und nach der Corona-Krise, LuXemburg, April 2020, .
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/VCD, Mobilitätsatlas. Daten und Fakten für die Verkehrswende, Berlin 2020.
Stephan, Krull et al., Die Autoindustrie vor und nach „Corona“: Konversion statt Rezepte von gestern!, Stellungnahme aus dem Gesprächskreis „Auto.Umwelt.Mobilität“ der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, April 2020.
Riexinger, Bernd et al., Sichere, sinnvolle und gut bezahlte Arbeit in der Industrie. Der linke Green New Deal für die Mobilitätswende und eine „soziale, ökologische und demokratische Transformation“ der Auto-Industrie, Diskussions-Vorlage für die Parteivorstandssitzung der LINKEN, 27 October 2019.
Urban, Hans-Jürgen, “Wirtschaftsdemokratie als Transformationshebel“, Blätter f. dt. u. internat. Politik, vol. 11, pp. 105-14.
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 The current coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent closure of major parts of social and economic life overlaps with the tail end of a business cycle (see IfG 2020). This downturn started in autumn 2019 at the latest, following nine years of slow growth. In contrast to 2007–2008, the current crisis was not triggered by the banking system (subprime crisis) but by a collapse in production. Industrial production in Germany shrunk by nearly five percent last year, while worldwide production growth dropped to zero. The most important cause is overproduction due to massive overcapacity in the global automotive industry (but also in the chemical and steel industries). An absolute decline in production has already been recorded for two years, with one million fewer cars produced in Germany alone. The slump in automobile production following the 2009 crisis was (over)compensated for by the enormous expansion of the market in China. This time, however, production in China is also falling drastically, with over two million less units being produced even before the outbreak of the pandemic. By the end of 2020, Germany may have produced just over half of the cars it produced in 2018. In terms of domestic car manufacturing, we have now returned to the production levels of 1994 and 2009. We are experiencing the shrinking of the car industry in a “disruptive way” (Krull).
 “Demands for more worker participation in the decision-making processes of companies and enterprises usually run against capitalist ownership structures. Faced with the demands of (global) markets, they remain surprisingly timid. [...] A transformed corporatism based on the principles of social partnership that could allow for a fair reconciliation of interests or even a change in the rules of the game is unlikely.” (Urban 2019, 133f.)