Archive | December, 2013

Hamburg on the Barricades

26 Dec


As an Xmas treat, John Riceburg is taking the Berlin Blog on an Ausflug to Hamburg. What transpired there could have happened just as easily in Berlin.

Last Saturday, December 21 – one weekend before the holidays – Hamburg saw one of the biggest riots in recent years. The tabloid press has been repeating claims by the police that the disturbances were the work of a few thousand traveling hooligans (Reisechaoten) who enjoy violence for violence’s sake. Actual reporters, in contrast, using video material from the scene, have shown that it was the hooligans in white helmets who attacked a peaceful demonstration.

But let’s start at the beginning. The old Flora Theater in Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel was occupied in November of 1989 and turned into Die Rote Flora, a centre for non-commercial culture and left-wing politics in the harbour city. The property was sold to the realty speculator Klausmartin Kretschmer in 2001 – with a contract acknowledging the building was being used by squatters. In 2013, Kretschmer announced that he wants to evict the users and build a six-story concert hall. He set a deadline for December 20.

I’ve already shown what happens to former squats after evictions. Nothing better should be expected on the Elbe. “The city belongs to everyone!” was the motto for more than 7000 people demonstrating for the Rote Flora and the Lampedusa refugees on December 21. The police mobilized several thousand officers and declared the entire city centre to a “danger zone” where they could stop, search and expel anyone without reason.

The demonstration started at 3:10pm, along a route that had been approved by the city. After just a few meters it was stopped. Soon the police were attacking the front rows with fists, batons, pepper spray and giant water cannons. “Stones had been thrown at police from a bridge,” a police spokesperson explained to the media why a legal demonstration had been dissolved.

But video evidence shows no rocks in the air until after the demonstration had been violently blocked. So then the police claimed the demonstration had started off “too early” – even though it had been registered for 3pm and started late. Then they said it started moving “suddenly and without consultation with the police” – as if that would nullify the right to free assembly. After that, chaos broke out: the police sealed off entire neighbourhoods and so ensued cat-and-mouse street fighting well into the night.

The police later claimed that 120 officers were injured. I’ve argued before that one shouldn’t trust official numbers before seeing people in green uniforms and body casts. The numbers from the medics accompanying the demonstration – over 500 demonstrators injured, 20 of them seriously, mostly from pepper spray and cannons shooting water mixed with poisonous chemicals – appear far more compatible with the evidence and eyewitness reports.

But the real injury is to the right to demonstrate. While the city of Hamburg pulled out all the stops to guarantee Nazi groups their right to demonstrate in 2008 and 2012, there was clearly a political decision to block a left-wing demonstration without any legal justification. The 7000 demonstrators included a train full of Berliners – not because they like violence, but because they want to protect an emblematic cultural centre from gentrification. Instead of demonstrating as planned, they spent hours dashing through back alleys to escape marauding police.

The same thing could happen in Berlin. The Berlin senator for the interior Frank Henkel has set a new ultimatum for the eviction of the refugee camp at Oranienplatz for January 18 – even though any such attempt will undoubtedly lead to massive protests. And there are plenty of community centres in Berlin – both squatted and rented – in the cross-hairs of realty speculators. You can use your constitutional right to demonstrate against these evictions. But what if the police can criminalize any demonstration after just a few minutes? And what if the big media go along with this?

Guido Westerwelle, the former Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic, was in Kiev supporting demonstrators against the president Viktor Yanukovych. German politicians are happy to denounce police violence – as long as it’s directed against pro-Western demonstrators. But a protest in the Schanzelviertel or in Kreuzberg gets pretty much the same treatment as in Kiev. So could we get the Foreign Minister of the Ukraine to come to Hamburg and Berlin to support our right to demonstrate?




Christmas on the picket lines

11 Dec


Fighting for more pay and better conditions, Berlin’s shop workers are planning to disrupt business during retail’s most lucrative season.

It’s a cold morning in November. The sun hasn’t come up yet and the H&M on Friedrichstraße won’t open its doors for another hour. But by 7am, more than 50 people have lined up on the sidewalk. Today is “Designer Day”, the most important day of the year for the Swedish retail giant Hennes & Mauritz. Clothes from Isabel Marant are on offer, and starting at 8am, excited label-hunters get a coloured armband and are admitted into the store at 15-minute intervals. The cash registers are burning hot.

Then, at 10am, a young woman in a blonde wig walks through the store. At the back near the fitting rooms, she casts off her fashionista disguise, pulls a megaphone out of her bag and begins shouting for a strike. Within minutes, the whole workforce is out on the street, handing out flyers and holding a banner calling for “better working conditions at H&M”.

Get ready to see this scene repeated a lot over the coming weeks because this year, the holiday season is strike season. In Germany’s retail sector, a slow but steady battle has been taking place between the employers and the employees. In one corner is the retailers’ association Handelsverband; in the other, the trade union ver.di.

The set-up

The retailers picked a fight at the beginning of this year when they unilaterally terminated collective bargaining wage agreements, or Tarifverträge. These agreements regulate the pay and working conditions for different kinds of jobs in each sector of the economy, including about half of the 3.2 million workers in the retail sector – two-thirds of them women, 40 percent working on part-time contracts.

The employers talk about “modernising” the contracts. While it’s true that the contracts include clauses covering elevator operators, even though these haven’t been around for several decades, the bosses’ main concern isn’t getting rid of anachronisms. “Modernisation” means creating new low wage groups for workers doing inventory: while starting wages now are just over €11 per hour, they want to sink them to €8.50. This could mean a wage cut of up to 25 percent for people working in businesses adhering to the collective pay agreement. Negotiations about a new contract have been going on for several months, but proceeding at a snail’s pace.

“We’re like David against Goliath,” says Martin Liedtke, “but we haven’t found a rock for our sling yet.” The 30-year-old knows a thing or two about Bible stories, since besides his job at the supermarket Kaufland in Oranienburg he also studies theology at the Humboldt University. He works 12 hours per week at about €12 an hour – just enough for a student to get by. About 70 percent of the personnel in his store is part-time.

“At a job interview, the boss will say that you can have 12 or 15 hours a week,” Liedtke explains. “The rest you can get from the Jobcenter.” Germany’s unemployment programme allows for Aufstocker: workers who earn so little that they still qualify for Hartz-IV welfare can get the state to pay the difference. In other words, the taxpayer is subsidising low wages to the tune of more than €1.5 billion a year. Is it any wonder that in the list of the 10 richest Germans, the top three spots belong to retailers? (That’s the Albrecht brothers from Aldi and Dieter Schwarz from Lidl.)

Liedtke has been a Betriebsrat (a member of the works council) for three years. So far, he has convinced half of the staff at his shop to join the trade union. He’s also seen plenty of support from the public, including fellow students, many of whom are happy to help disrupt revenue during the strike and generally cause chaos. “On a strike day, the line of shopping carts will stretch all the way back to the entrance,” he explains with a mischievous smile, “and lots of customers will abandon their items and leave.” During a strike at a different Kaufland location, student supporters had all their items rung up. Only when they saw the price did they exclaim: “€55? I can’t afford that! Thankfully there’s a strike today!” And they ran off.

Similar actions have taken place at IKEA in Lichtenberg, where a crowd blew whistles and marched all the way through the showroom, or at the Alexa shopping centre, where anonymous supporters threw flyers down from a balcony. But these aren’t car factories with 98 percent of the work force in a trade union – these are smaller outlets with very little tradition of organised labour. So the strikers need to be creative and reach out to the public.

Wage discrepancies between East and West are still an issue in retail. Nearly 25 years after the fall of the Wall, retail workers in eastern Germany still make about €1 less per hour than their colleagues in the West. The Thalia book chain, for example, continues to differentiate between salaries at the Gesundbrunnen Center (in the West) and the Schönhauser Arkaden (in the East, a single S-Bahn station away). Although H&M pays all its workers in Berlin the Western rate, Brandenburg employees earn less. Here, too, the trade union is demanding equal wages. The

Swedish empire

There are three different H&M stores within just 700 metres on Friedrichstraße, but only one, shop no. 680 at Friedrichstraße 79, has a works council. It is also the only one where employees refuse to work on Sundays. “We have been protesting against Sunday work since it was introduced in Berlin seven years ago,” says council president Jan Richter.

Berlin introduced shopping on eight Sundays a year back in 2006 – this year, retail workers were even expected to go in on the Sunday of the national elections. But this one shop has resisted. On one grey Sunday in October, its workers gathered to protest in front of their workplace. They brought coffee, cake and lots of flyers to convince customers not to go inside (where the tills would still be attended by strike breakers brought in from other stores). “No work on Sunday,” said a sign written in English.

Richter, a 34-year-old with sweeping hair and an absurdly long scarf, started the job at H&M more than 10 years ago while studying social sciences at the nearby Humboldt University. The father of a three-year-old daughter, he works on the sales floor about once a week – most of his job involves representing his colleagues against management. His Betriebsrat colleague Susi Mantel, who at 32 sports darker clothes and a few austere tattoos, got into retail four years ago when she couldn’t find a decent job after studying architecture. “All I was offered were badly paid internships,” she remembers, “so I took a full-time job at H&M in order to have a steady income, even if I didn’t think I would stay there for long.”

If you don’t want to work on a Sunday, then you shouldn’t want to shop for underpants on a Sunday either.

“A sector with a majority of women is the first to be attacked,” says Richter about the employers’ proposals to ‘modernise’ the contracts. But they aren’t putting up with it: In the last 10 years, more than 50 of the 60 workers in their store have joined the trade union, making it the best organised of the 28 H&M stores in Berlin.

They also have the most creative actions. Recently, during the middle of the day, everyone stopped working and went outside. When strike breakers were brought in to re-open the shop, everyone went right back inside. This happened several times – a so-called “in-and-out strike” that forces the company to pay for two staffs at once. It shows that these union activists who cut their teeth in the students’ movement brought some of the audaciousness of youth protests into the workforce.

Yet Richter, Mantel and their small band of workers are fighting against a Swedish empire which made almost €2 billion in profits (on almost €15 billion of revenue) last year. “They have a whole scab army,” Richter explains, referring to salespeople who have been hired only to work in shops during the strike. Workers from half a dozen shops will come out on a strike day, about 70 in total. “A friend of a colleague got a job at H&M and the company always had him picked up from home in a taxi,” Mantel says. “Only later was he embarrassed to learn that he was being used to weaken the strike by keeping the shops open.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of people at H&M and other companies willing to break the strike, either because they’re scared of their supervisors or simply because they desperately need the money from an extra hour of work.

A giant first-aid station

Amazon might not have any shops to protest in front of, but they’re feeling the dissatisfaction of their workers nonetheless. Christian name changed) has just started to work in the brand-new logistics centre in Brieselang, located in Brandenburg just past Spandau and Falkensee. About 800 people have been hired to work until January 1 – but only a small fraction will be allowed to continue on past the holidays. “This is really stressful work,” the 30-yearold explains, “since you have to meet a quota every single day.” One of the first things he noticed was a giant first aid station for workers who passed out during their full day treks through the endless rows of shelves. Yet Amazon refuses to pay according to the collective agreement: the starting wage at the logistics centre is €9.65 an hour, where the agreement says it should be almost €2 more.

The online retailer has been facing months of strikes at its warehouses in Leipzig and in Bad Hersfeld in Hesse (there’s no word yet about strikes in Brieselang). As a response to these first strikes, in July the company decided to start paying holiday bonuses of €400-600 – a much lower rate than industry standards. The company is threatening to close five of its eight logistics centres in Germany and open new ones in Poland and the Czech Republic to serve Germany. It’s not clear, however, how serious these threats are, since the larger distances could greatly increase shipping times to German customers. Strikes might seriously disrupt sales, and a victory by the workers could potentially unravel Amazon’s whole business model, based on low wages and short-term contracts.

Strike karma

The strikes in the retail sector will still be a long haul. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this doesn’t affect you. “If you don’t want to work on a Sunday, then you shouldn’t want to shop for underpants on a Sunday either,” says Richter. And it’s a snowball effect: if retail workers start having to work on Sundays, he cautions, daycare centres will have to be open then too. And pretty soon Sunday will be gone for everyone. “This is why we need solidarity across the different sectors.”

Whatever you do, try not to cross a picket line. Since the strikes, at least so far, have only been taking place in individual stores on individual days, you can always get more or less the same goods in a different store or, if it absolutely has to be that store, then on a different day. “Doing the right thing is good for your karma,” Mantel says, “especially at Christmas time.” Besides, standing arm-in-arm with striking workers is far more fun than the stress of holiday shopping!

What do the employers want?

– A new low-wage category of positions, paid €8.50 per hour

– Greater flexibility in scheduling shifts

– Even more part-time contracts

What do the employees want?

– €1 more per hour

– Equal wages in West and East

– Protection of current overtime pay and bonuses

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.


Picture: Charlotte Eberwein

Holiday fun at Ikea

11 Dec


There is so much to do at Ikea! You can grab a new lamp for the living room. Or pick up a whisk for that colleague you don’t know well. And there’s a playroom for the kids. Plus, don’t forget the bistro! But what if you were drinking your coffee and you heard a loud whistle? What if more than 50 people in black t-shirts stood up and began to demonstrate through the store? What would you do?!?

Well, that’s one form of alternative Xmas entertainment: strike!

The strikes in the retail sector continue. Agreements between the trade unions and the business associations have been reached in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. But Berlin retailers are insisting on maintaining unequal pay between the outlets in the former West and East. That’s right, 24 years after the fall of the Wall, you still earn less money if you work at the Thalia bookshop at Schönhauser Allee (in the East) than at the Thalia bookshop at Gesundbrunnen (in the West). That one stop on the Ringbahn will cost you €1 per hour in wages.

Yesterday, about 50 people – workers from Ikea and H&M as well as student supporters – paid a visit to Ikea in Tempelhof during a strike day. They all sat down in the restaurant for coffee. After the whistle, they opened jackets to show t-shirts with a heart logo of the trade union ver.di. They were asked to leave, but – you know how Ikea is set up – that involves following a long, snaking path through the entire store. They handed out fliers to customers and distributed door hangers informing customers that “this business is on strike”. A small herd of yellow-shirted employees followed behind to remove everything again.

German law makes it possible for a trade union to enter a business that is officially on strike. So while the security asked the strikers to leave – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with rudeness one wouldn’t expect inside the “Ikea family” – they couldn’t do much more. When one got out his phone and threatened to call the police, his colleague whispered: “As long as they’re not bothering anyone, we really can’t do anything.” The customers assured them that the information on the strike was interesting: “I work at the supermarket Netto and they’re not bothering me,” one woman said of the activists. It seems that low wages in the retail sector affect more than just Ikea employees.

If you happen to see a strike while doing your Xmas shopping, whether it’s at a clothing shop, a supermarket, or a giant blue and yellow furniture store, remember to say hi to the strikers, help them hand out fliers, and leave your goods at the register. You can get that cheap whisk on any other day. But you can only stand up for decent wages in the retail sector on a strike day!


Picture: John Riceburg

Best commie hideout: Rotes Antiquariat

2 Dec


From Exberliners “Holidy indie bookshop guide”:

Looking for a first edition of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital from 1867? It will set you back €9000, but Rotes Antiquariat is the place to find it. The store belongs to a very different era than the luxury apartments under construction next door. Its 27,000-plus books, stacked to the ceiling, focus on the workers’ movement before 1933 – including expensive rarities as well as bargain reprints from the 1970s.

You can get copies of newspapers from the General Commission of the Trade Unions from the early 20th century or from the Communist League of West Germany from the 1970s. If you know older Berliners who left behind radical pasts, wouldn’t they be thrilled to get an agitational poster from a defunct Maoist sect for Christmas? A shelf in the back carries English editions of Lenin and Bakunin.

Around since 2003, the store is “a normal capitalist company” with an owner (the rarely seen Christian Bartsch), but at least all the workers earn the same wage regardless of qualifications. And it wouldn’t be a bonafide left-wing location if it didn’t occasionally get into trouble: in 2007, police raided the shop because one of the employees was accused of belonging to an underground left-wing group. JR

Rungestr. 20, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Jannowitzbrücke, Mon-Fri 12-18, Sat 11-15


Picture: Charlotte Eberwein