June 5, 2017

1949. Berlin Rail Workers Vote to Continue the Strike

"It's Your Strike, You Settle It"
Rail workers vote on whether to continue the UGO strike, June 2, 1949 (DPA/Alamy)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 11, 1949

Mr. Vyshinsky's proposals to the Western foreign ministers for a German peace treaty might have evoked official surprise in Paris, but in Berlin it is more of the same old stuff.

The German Communists have been pounding that line for the past six months. Now that Vyshinsky has made it official, the Russian-licensed press here is teeing off again on a revived anti-Western campaign. This is what they are saying in the Communist press: "Western Powers Refuse Peace Treaty—Acheson Has No Time for German Problem" . . . Peace "premature—fifty years without peace treaty."

In other words, the only concrete development thus far from Paris has been the creation of an official basis for Russian propaganda—to present the Soviet Union as the only occupation power that wants a peace treaty.

American, British, and French officials in Berlin are awaiting a reply from the Russians to their invitation to resume talks on restoring rail traffic to this city. The reply is expected later today.

The strike of the elevated railway workers—which has tied up railroad deliveries—has been quiet for the past twenty-four hours. Leaders of the anti-Communist union met with the West Berlin city government this morning and prepared another set of compromise proposals proposals to end their strike against the Russian-controlled railroad.

This afternoon the executive committee of the union meets again to approve the compromise, which still must be accepted by the Communist directorate if this partial blockade of Berlin is to be lifted.
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Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

June 12, 1949

The next forty-eight hours should determine whether the Berlin crisis will continue to exist as a major international problem, or whether this bisected city will finally be on the road to reasonable solution of its difficulties.

Economic officials of the Western Powers at this moment are meeting with Russian authorities in an attempt to arrive at agreements which will restore trade between Eastern and Western Germany. Yesterday's conference broke up in the early hours of this morning, and Lawrence Wilkinson, American representative, said cryptically that "we gained no ground, but neither did we lose any." However, there appears to be an honest effort underway to come to agreement.

The other important development in the Berlin crisis was the meeting this morning of the anti-Communist railroad union which for the past three weeks has tied up all rail traffic into the city by a strike against the Russian-directed Berlin elevated.

Some six hundred strike delegates met in the American sector to decide whether or not to continue their walkout, or whether to accept a compromise wage offer which partially grants their demands to be paid only in West marks. The elevated management offered to pay 60 percent of the men's wages in West marks, and last night the American military government intervened in an effort to bring about an end to the strike. General Frank Howley, American commandant for Berlin, said that he had authorized the West Berlin city government to pay another 15 percent of the men's wages in Western currency. Howley told the strikers in a letter that he thought the compromise proposal is a reasonable one and urged the union to accept it.

At today's strike meeting, however, union leaders met vigorous opposition from the rank and file who have been fighting Eastern railroad police and Communist strikebreakers for the past twenty-one days. Opponents of the compromise said they wanted more assurance that the Russian-directed rail management would not take reprisals against them.

After several hectic hours of debate, the strike delegates turned down the compromise. But the final say will come from the strikers. A referendum on whether or not to accept the compromise will be held on Monday or Tuesday.

The voting will be a major factor in easing the Berlin crisis—or once again increasing the tension in this divided city to the breaking point.

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

CBS Berlin

June 13, 1949

Big Four economic authorities in Berlin have eight hours in which to reach a decision on the resumption of trade into this city—eight hours which may spell the success or failure of any agreement at all of the Council of Foreign Ministers.

We know nothing of what has been going on in these consultations except that they have been cordial, and thus far, according to officials, no agreement. Today British officials are predicting that agreement on the lifting of the partial blockade will be reached. If this is true, then it will be the first rapprochement arrived at with the Russians in more than a year of intensive "cold war" in Germany. But we must wait and see.

Tomorrow some 12,000 West Berlin railroad workers will vote on whether or not to accept a compromise in the three-week-old elevated strike that has tied up rail deliveries to this city. The strikers have before them a compromise wage proposal that would give them 75 percent of their pay in West marks, the original issue which caused the shutdown. And the American military government is guaranteeing a management promise that no reprisals will be taken against the men who walked out. The vote tomorrow is not so much a referendum on wages as it is a vote of confidence in our ability to protect these Germans against any punitive action that the Soviet-directed rail management might take.

Tension is high in the Ruhr this morning as German workers resist the attempts of British officials to dismantle four plants marked by the Allies as potential war industries. German work gangs succeeded in entering only one plant to carry out their work. In three others the dismantlers either laid down their tools or failed to show up for work.

The German workers claim that destruction of the plants, most of them synthetic fuel establishments, will put them out of jobs.

Yesterday the British military governor of the area, General Bishop, made a special radio appeal to the Ruhr Germans, sympathizing with their position but declaring that force would be used if necessary to carry out the dismantling program.

In the Ruhr town of Bergkamen a roadblock was raised in the street leading to one chemical plant, and the entire town turned out to prevent a gang of thirty men from entering the area. British troops then moved in and seized the plant. There were no incidents.

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

CBS Berlin

June 14, 1949

Some 14,000 West Berlin rail workers are voting today whether or not to continue their strike against the Russian-directed elevated management, and according to the latest reports of the voting, it is going to be a close decision as to whether or not the men will go back to work and lift the "little blockade" of rail traffic into the city.

Union leaders, anxious to get the men back to work, ruled that the strike would continue only if 75 percent of the members wanted it. In other words, if only 25 percent of the strikers want to go back to work and vote that way, then the strike is off.

However, with two-thirds of the vote in, there has been a heavy majority of "nos," and we won't know until this evening whether the strike is on or off.

The anti-Communist union has been offered a compromise which would give them 75 percent of their pay in West marks. They were demanding 100 percent. But the main issue now is whether the Russian-directed rail management will take reprisals against the strikers. The American military government has said there will be no reprisals, but the strikers evidently want more assurance than this.

If the strikers vote to go back to work, it will greatly ease tension in Berlin and serve to expedite the trade and transport agreements we are trying to arrange with the Soviet Union.

The economic advisers of the four occupation powers have sent their findings to the Council of Foreign Ministers, and according to American sources, no solid agreements were reached on East-West trade.

All major issues such as currency exchange have been left to Paris. America, Britain, and France also are demanding in writing an agreement from the Russians that will give us free passage of road and rail transport across the Soviet zone into the Western sectors of Berlin, thus obviating the possibility of another blockade in the future. This problem also goes to Paris.

The Ruhr is quiet this morning, with dismantling gangs at work in all contracted plants. Belgian troops still occupy the synthetic oil plant at Bergkamen and gave protection to dismantling workers who came in this morning. The British commandant of the area expressed regret at having to use force but said he was gratified that no one was hurt. A dozen German workers will be tried in a British military government court for refusing to do the dismantling work.

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

CBS Berlin

June 15, 1949

American and Russian military government authorities in Berlin this morning are hurling words at each other like rocks across a back fence in a neighborhood quarrel.

Each is attempting to fix blame on the other for continuance of the Berlin elevated strike that has tied up rail traffic into this city for the past twenty-five days.

The theme of this argument goes: "It's your strike, you settle it." The West says settlement is the responsibility of the Russians because they control the railroad that rings the city. The Russians maintain that settlement lies with the Western Powers since the strike is only taking place in the Western sectors of the city.

All in all, it is a messy situation and further complicated by the results of yesterday's strike referendum in which the anti-Communist union voted six to one to continue with the strike.

American commandant for Berlin, General Frank Howley, says that the reason the strikers voted not to return to work was because of a last-minute double-cross. Howley last week had a confidential meeting with the Soviet transport chief, General Kvashnin, in which Kvashnin gave a verbal guarantee that there would be no reprisals against the strikers if they agreed to return to work. Then yesterday morning, just as the strike vote was to be taken, the Communist press and radio put out statements that Kvashnin had given no such assurance.

This, according to Howley, is the reason that the strikers refused to end their walkout. He admits that he only has Kvashnin's word "as an officer and a gentleman," and according to Howley the Russian general obviously has received new directives from higher up to repudiate his earlier promises.

This morning the American, British, and French commandants are meeting to determine the next step in the confused transport situation which has put a partial blockade on the city. Another meeting is being held by the West Berlin city council, where discussions are underway to institute an emergency service over the elevated line in the Western sectors.

It would be a dangerous move in that the Soviet military government jealously guards its stewardship of the transport system. But the entire strike situation here constitutes an ever-present invitation to violence and bloodshed.

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

CBS Berlin

June 16, 1949

It is evident this morning that the Big Four foreign ministers meeting in Paris have about 14,000 uninvited guests sitting with them in spirit today—the 14,000 West Berlin rail workers who are on strike here.

These are the men who the day before yesterday exercised a powerful proxy veto by voting to continue their strike, a decision that has its repercussions in Paris and Washington and Moscow. It is a fact that this group of German union workers are exercising a definite amount of influence on the foreign policies of the four most powerful nations on earth, a situation probably unparalleled in history.

So today the foreign ministers of America, Britain, France and Russia have the Berlin strike problem on their hands, and although there is very little optimism in Berlin that the Big Four ministers will be able to do anything about it, there is relief here that the strike situation will be discussed on the highest level. I could find no confirmation of the report that the Paris conference would continue discussion of the Berlin crisis through a committee of deputies to be sent to this city after the foreign secretaries adjourn their meeting.

The striking anti-Communist union today is holding another meeting to promote its proposals that the West Berlin city government institute emergency service on the elevated railroad, a move which would defy the Soviet management of the railroad system but one which might possibly open up rail traffic from the west into Berlin. The difficulty of instituting this emergency traffic is that the electric power for the elevated comes from the Soviet sector of town, and there are only about ten steam engines available in the Western sectors to run on the shut down portions of the rail system. Also, institution of this emergency traffic undoubtedly would lead to another series of clashes between opposing rail workers.

While we have been watching the international aspects of the Berlin crisis, the seriousness of the situation locally has increased in gravity. The British-licensed newspaper, The Telegraph, this morning says that of the two million Berliners living in the Western side of the city, one million are in serious economic difficulty. Thirty percent of the people are unable to pay their rent. 153,000 persons are unemployed and another 55,000 working only part time. There is danger, the paper says, that the anti-Communist Berliners will recede into a spiritless attitude of hopeless resignation, as has happened in other major cities in the Soviet zone.

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