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Organize, Fight, Win

Report from German labor conference

Evan DeMers reports on rank-and-file strategy discussions and debates among German workers at a recent conference.

The weekend of September 30, 2022, the “Organisieren, Kämpfen, Gewinnen” (OKG) —”Organize, Fight, Win”—conference convened at the IG Metall building in Berlin, Germany. IG Metall is the largest labor union in Germany, representing about 15 percent of the national workforce.

The conference revolved around strategy and labor organization, borrowing heavily from the tradition of Labor Notes in the United States. With an emphasis on local organizing and struggle from below, more than 140 German workers gathered to share stories and strategize on how to overcome the stacked deck our capitalist employers play with.

Workshops and presentations were held primarily in German, but the grassroots organizing committee took pains to provide translation services to participants who were not fluent in German.

The conference began with an overview of the current state of the German labor movement, titled “Strengthening the Rank-and-File!” Readers who are familiar with the Labor Notes approach to rank-and-file organizing would recognize the language and analysis used in the opening speeches, spearheaded by Violetta Bock, a member of the Kassel city parliament for Die Linke, The Left Party.

Participants were encouraged to utilize the poster board in the building’s lobby to indicate which workshops they would like to attend, so that the limited resources of OKG and its organizing committee could be allocated to greatest effect. The mood was positive, hopeful, and forceful, in keeping with the conference’s name.

After a short break, participants grabbed more caffeine and split up into their respective workshops. I attended a workshop titled “From Ryanair to Gorillas—International Organizing.”  Ryanair is an Irish ultra-low cost airline that has been exploiting its workforce since 1984. Gorillas is a newer phenomenon, an app-based grocery delivery company that has only had two and a half years to practice exploiting and abusing its workers. Both companies, however, use the same playbook to keep organizing and unionization at bay while they suck profits from the people of the European Union and beyond,such as keeping the workforce physically separated as much as possible, punishing any workers who dare to speak out and suggest organizing against the company’s profit interest, and generally just being all-around jerks.

There are, however, significant differences in the union-busting tactics of Ryanair and Gorillas. This has led to workers and union representatives involved in the struggle deploying different strategies and organizing tactics .

The response of the Ryanair workers is grassroots at its core. While union organizers came into the workplace and identified organic leaders within the workforce, their involvement largely ended there. The majority of organizing had to be done subversively, out of sight not only of the bosses, but of other workers who are not yet trusted allies. The foremost task of the union leaders was to identify allies and snitches, bringing allies into the fold through informal meetings in airport bars and the like. In online chats, unionists used pseudonyms to protect their identities from prying eyes.

Because the workers of Ryanair consist of flight crew members who are based in countries throughout Europe, they are forced to reckon with disparate labor laws and other obstacles to effective strike action, especially given that workers can be flown in from elsewhere if a certain country’s workforce decides to go on strike. It should be emphasized that there were never any authorized strike actions at Ryanair, and any wildcat strike that workers participated in risked immediate termination.

Gorillas workers are concentrated in Germany, but face many challenges connected to the nature of app-based gig work and the alienation it causes. Thankfully, due to a quirk of German labor law, the workers at Gorillas have been able to overcome this great difficulty and organize the workforce to a much greater extent than gig workers in the United States.

Under German law, a Betriebsrat, or “workers council” or “operating council” is an organization that consists of rank-and-file workers at a company who are paid by the company to organize the workforce and determine what operating conditions are appropriate for the workplace. The legal basis in Germany is the Betriebsverfassungsgesetz, or Works Constitution Act, according to which employees of a company with at least five permanent and eligible employees are entitled to elect a works council.

The Betriebsrat is guaranteed office space, paid for by the company, and is legally protected in actions taken to organize the workforce and fight for better working conditions. To describe the complexities of Betriebsräte and their interaction with traditional labor unions would require another article, but in practice German labor law allows workers much more power than the laws of the United States.

Just a few years ago, Ryanair workers in Germany were denied the right to a Betriebsrat due an exception for airlines in the law which authorized the workers’ councils. The Ryanair union fought this in court and won the removal of this clause, thus ensuring the same level of worker protection and representation as other workers.

Gorillas workers had a much easier time forming their Betriebsrat and using it to support and organize their disparate workforce. But they had their own problems, some common to workers in Germany and some specific to the alienated nature of the gig economy.

As I mentioned above, Beteriebsräte are guaranteed an office space. However it is not required that this office space be accessible or outside the direct control of the employer. It was a fight just for organizers to secure an office space located outside Gorillas HQ, where they did not have to worry about constant surveillance and other measures taken to discourage workers from communicating with their council representatives. In the end, the Betriebsrat was successful in securing a space in a large warehouse that was shared with other labor-focused organizations.

A final similarity between the two campaigns is that they were affected massively by the COVID-19 pandemic, although in almost opposite ways. Gorillas organizers were energized by the pandemic, using the deplorable working conditions and the harsh winter to inspire workers to demand change from their corporate bosses. This probably has something to do with the relative newness of Gorillas as a company, and their quick pivot to pandemic services as people stayed home and ordered groceries en masse.

Ryanair workers were not so lucky. Their campaign had been gathering steam for years before the pandemic hit. The contract bargaining for their first ever union contract actually began during the pandemic, and this led to an agreement signed under duress. The hard-won solidarity between flight crews of different European nations was shattered by the imposition of different agreements for each country, as well as agreements identifying employees as self-employed contractors.

The Frankfurt base of Ryanair, a hub of union organizing in Germany, was shut down and the workers shuttled off to other bases around the country. This led to a sharp drop in the popularity of the movement and a loss of momentum for the union organizers. After all, why would workers support a union that was unable to follow through on its promises? This speaks to the callousness and greed of the corporate bosses who will use any available tactics to bust union organizing efforts, often in disregard to their legality.

Some grassroots tools have developed in response to these blatantly illegal actions on the part of employers. The Sue Your Boss website gives workers tools and forms they need to initiate legal action against their bosses. The fact that there is no equivalent to the class action lawsuit in German law makes it more difficult to launch legal action against lawbreaking employers, but there is some compensation in the relative ease with which an individual can bring a lawsuit against their boss. Since no legal expertise is required to submit a form to the courts and receive a judgment, workers can do this en masse with just a bit of support from activist lawyers. The message of these campaigns is clear. As individual employees our power is limited, but in concerted action we have a chance to send a message to our masters that will hit them where it hurts most, their wallets.

After the lunch break there was another round of workshops, including one on union busting led by Raphael Reinstein-Wagner, the chairman of the Betriebsrat representing the workers of Wikus-Sägenfabrik, an industrial manufacturer of saws represented by IG Metall. The readership of Tempest will no doubt be intimately familiar with the wide variety of underhanded tactics used by powerful companies to divide workers and destroy the solidarity and trust that are so crucial for forming effective organizations to counter capitalist exploitation. Yet a curious aspect of the German labor movement is there is no common term in German for “union busting.” Indeed, the untranslated name of the workshop was “Union Busting: Organisieren trotz Widerstand.”

Ironically, the phrase “union busting” may be one of the greatest recent contributions of the U.S. labor movement to international solidarity. It is difficult, if not impossible, to form an effective opposition to a tactic if one has no name for it. Separately, union busting activities appear as petty jabs from employers, none of which is on its own offensive enough to give rise to a response. But when taken together and properly named, it becomes clear that union busting is a concerted strategy by employers to undermine the unity among people whose lives, both economic and social, are fundamentally bound up together.

Raphael described the greatest hits of union busting tactics: legal harassment of employees who joined the nascent Betreibsrat that he helped establish, scheduling mandatory meetings during times when Betriebsrat meetings had been scheduled, and so on. And he described how the necessary response to these is solidarity. How could the Betreibsrat demonstrate to the affected workers, intellectually and emotionally, that they were not alone in their struggle? And how could the Betreibsrat show them that, if they were targeted with harassment, they would not be fighting as individuals, but as part of a team with a common cause and purpose?

He also highlighted wedge issues that could be used to illustrate to workers the pettiness of the employers’ treatment of blue-collar workers. A particularly humorous example was the lower quality of toilet paper for restrooms on the shop floor compared to restrooms in the white-collar corporate offices.

Photograph from the Organisieren, Kämpfen, Gewinnen conference in Germany, September, 2022, which shows four speakers at a table at the front of the room speaking to people (nine shown), with their backs to the photographer.
Photo by Evan DeMers.

Another example revolved around a company tradition of packaging oranges for the small town in which the Wikus-Sägenfabrik factory was based. For decades, the company had organized an event where the rank-and-file would get together for a day and package tens or hundreds of crates of oranges for the community. This was a splendid show of solidarity from the bosses that was appreciated not just by the recipients of the low-hanging fruit, but by the workers who were given an opportunity to feel good in knowing that they were giving their time to a worthy cause. Of course this tradition did not survive long after the company’s Betreibsrat was organized. In response, the members of the worker’s council took it upon themselves to revive the tradition and demonstrate a way in which worker power could be used directly to help people in the community when the dictates of capitalism demanded otherwise.

Raphael also stressed the need to follow up on these activities with education and discussion of solidarity by having meetings and organization-building exercises where an economic and political case can be made for the existence and necessity of the Betreibsrat. Perhaps the most important thing that can be done in this vein, he argued, is to publicize the actions of both the employer and the worker’s council in the media. This not only helps to gather support from the community for the council, but it protects workers against reprisal. Only by making acceptance of the Betreibsrat the path of least resistance for the employer do the workers have any chance of success.

The day closed, as any good conference does, with a party in the lobby of the IG Metall building. Let us take this opportunity to enjoy a particular quirk of the German language: one does not say that they “have a party” in German, but rather “wir machen die Party,” meaning “we make the party.” That’s right, parties do not simply happen of their own accord. It is up to us to make them happen.

During the party, people participated in a unique spin on the concept of a poetry slam: the Work Slam. Participants got up on stage and shared their own stories of exploitation, struggle, and resistance in the workplace. The vibe was excellent and the performances were both heartfelt and heartwarming. Emotions do not need translation, and the emotions on display during the Work Slam were the perfect cap to a day full of inspiration and new connections.

Featured Image Credit: Photo from Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Evan DeMers View All

Evan DeMers is a revolutionary socialist born and raised in Sacramento, CA, now living in Berlin, Germany. He is studying planetary science and remote sensing in the hope that he can help humanity adapt to the catastrophic climate disasters that we all know are coming.