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My hipster visa wedding

2 Oct


Eternal love? Whatever. For the non-Germans among us, getting married in Berlin might not be romantic – but it sure is pragmatic. John Riceburg tied the knot and couldn’t be happier about it.

What am I doing here? I’m sitting next to my girlfriend in a Wilhelminist chapel in Berlin. Stained glass, brass chandeliers, angels painted on the wall – the only thing out of place is me. A middle-aged woman is sitting behind a desk with a book and an absurdly large stamp. There’s no question about it: I’m entering the holy bond of matrimony, Prussian-style. But what I’m feeling is more than cold feet – it’s more like existential doubt. Why would anyone in this day and age want to get married?

The story began almost a year earlier when I went to a consultation about getting a work visa in Germany. Within 18 months after getting my university degree, I would need to show a full-time, permanent job contract that was somehow related to my field of study. He warned me that the clock would start ticking the day I got my diploma. So I mentioned I had a German girlfriend. “Then definitely get married,” he said. Hands down the best option.

I broached the subject with my partner, as carefully as I possibly could, and she agreed it just made sense. So we set off on our paperwork adventure.

The main thing we needed was an Ehefähigkeitszeugnis, a certificate stating neither of us were married to anyone else. Any German citizen can get this from the Bürgeramt, but as an American, I couldn’t. Instead, I had to go to the US consulate and swear to a clerk that I wasn’t married. They provided a form, in English and German, explaining that I had made this declaration and that they had no possibility to check whether I was telling the truth. The cost? Fifty dollars.

Next, we went to the Kammergericht and asked for an exemption of the need for an Ehefähigkeitszeugnis. After two weeks, the court gave me an individual exemption that was good for exactly six months. Then all we needed was my birth certificate (translated from English at a cost of €25!) and we were off to the Standesamt, where we had to fill out a form assuring them we were not getting married for immigration reasons. Well, not only those reasons…

Friends had told me their marriages were “checked” by the bureaucrats: They were put in different rooms and had to write down the story of how they met. Others got a home visit to see if they slept in the same bed. I asked, ever so carefully, if we would be checked. “Don’t worry,” the registrar said with a big smile. “We only do that with Turks or Africans.”

“This is all so unromantic!” my partner complained. It was true; all the forms and stamps were making our relationship start to feel like a visit to the tax office. So it was at the 2012 Fusion Festival, that I dragged her to the theatre at 4pm sharp, somehow successfully convincing her we absolutely needed to go see a documentary about light bulbs. The lights went down, and the Latino theatre organisers, happy to help me win the hand of “la mujer de mi visa”, projected a one-minute film (thoughtfully including German subtitles!) in which I asked her to marry me. I got out some gigantic neon-pink rings I had gotten for €5 each from H&M. She said yes – but then again, she didn’t have much of a choice with 500 people watching.

Paperwork? Check. Proposal? Check. In our eyes, we were done, but to our chagrin, our parents insisted on bringing together dozens of relatives for a traditional ceremony. Still, we refused to sacrifice our individuality. After we left the chapel, we celebrated at Tempelhofer Feld, where we all sung the song “Lieselotte XXL” about an old woman, Lieselotte Meyer, marrying a young man from Kurdistan to protect him from deportation. Next, we went to an abandoned building and had a big group of seniors spray graffiti. I almost wished the police would come so they would admit this was the sweetest case of Sachbeschädigung ever.

We had strange colours, boots, masks, and a bolo tie made by my grandfather. It really was an individual ceremony… or so we thought until a few weeks later, when we encountered the next hipster wedding at Tempelhof, complete with hodgepodge outfits and a singalong.

So, the balance sheet after a year of marriage? It still feels anachronistic to talk about having a “wife”, but besides that, It’s fucking awesome to be married! My last trip to the Ausländerbehörde, previously an hours-long affair, took just seven minutes. Plus, my partner is saving a wad of cash thanks to Ehegattensplitting, the rule by which a married person pays the average tax rate of the couple – she’s the breadwinner among us, so her rate has dropped significantly. And there are even more legal advantages that I don’t want to mention in case a right-wing politician thinks to close the loopholes.

At the end of our marriage ceremony, the racist registrar told us: “Now, the two of you have joined up on a common path. But maybe soon it will be three, four or five people.” My partner and I looked at each other in shock. Did a bureaucrat just encourage us to enter a polyamorous marriage? Oh wait, we realised simultaneously, she was referring to kids. Now that would be really anachronistic! Why would we want a baby when we’ve already got legal residency?

Tying the Knot: Oct 8, Laika, Emser Str. 131, S+U-Bhf Neukölln.


Partitioned positions: Israelis in Berlin

20 Aug


It’s not easy being an Israeli in Berlin these days. Many are unhappy about the war in Gaza and the right-wing government in Jerusalem and at the same feel the sting from other Israelis about not supporting the Jewish state, while at the same time anti-Semitic attitudes have sporadically popped up from Germans who can’t make a distinction between the state and its people. John Riceburg spoke to a few cultural and political activists…

It was supposed to be a “peace party”, but the reactions weren’t unanimously peaceful. The Meschugge party in early August at the Sophienclub in Mitte featured DJs from Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Iran, united in saying “Khalas!” (Enough!) to war and conflict. The Meschugge parties are an institution for both the local “Oriental party scene” and Israeli émigrés.

But with the current war going on, “I didn’t feel like doing an Israeli party”, says party organiser and DJ Aviv Netter, (photo) who’s been organising the legendary “un-kosher Jewish” parties in Berlin for the last seven years. So he cancelled one date. And as the next date rolled around, and the war still raging, he decided to host a peace party instead.

At a Meschugge party, an international mix of beatseekers throw their hands up to the throbbing sounds of Oriental dance music and traditional Jewish music. It’s likely the only party where people of Arabic origin will dance under blue and white Israeli flags in Berlin. And while the “peace party” was a sign of genuine multikulti harmony, Netter (who tellingly DJs under “Aviv without the Tel”) also got angry reactions.

“Dirty pig” wrote “Ibrahim” via Facebook. Netter responded that his uncle was also named Ibrahim, and wished his harasser “peace” in Arabic. “No matter what, one shouldn’t hit back,” he explains. “I learned that in high school!” Two years ago, the plucky promoter brought his party to the southwestern town of Heidelberg. When Palestinians demonstrated in front of one of his parties and handed out cookies with the Palestinian flag, he invited them to distribute the cookies inside.

But resistance from outside the Jewish community wasn’t all Netter got. “Traitor!” also appeared on Facebook.

For Netter, the Meschugge parties are intended as cultural celebrations. But “everything in our day is political,” he laments. Like most Israelis here, Netter wants to be a Berliner… yet he often finds himself forced to deal with a conflict thousands of kilometres away.

Diaspora in Berlin

According to official data the Israeli community has grown from 2849 in 2008 to 3578, a 25 percent jump. From leftist and anarchist Israelis dissatisfied with the political climate back home, to young professionals with children taking advantage of the Berlin tech-industry buzz, while the cost of living back in Israel skyrockets, it’s hard to pinpoint one precise cause for the influx.

Berlin’s Israeli community now reflects the full spectrum of political opinion. The Facebook group for Israelis in Berlin, several thousand strong, might feature a convocation for demonstration against the war in Gaza, but also plenty of unfriendly responses. And even when some try to ignore Israeli politics, Israeli politics (and its critics) won’t ignore them.

Taking to the streets

On July 27, half a dozen Israelis sat down at the bar Südblock at Kottbusser Tor for an ad-hoc meeting. They had just been at a demonstration with a few hundred leftists against the Israeli attacks on Gaza, as well as the ISIS attacks on the Kurdish regions of Iraq. They couldn’t agree on much – “We’re still discussing about whether we’re post-Zionists or anti-Zionists,” one participant recalls – but as 34-year-old Iris Shahar explained, there was consensus that an Israeli voice against the war was urgently needed. Shahar has been studying history in Berlin for just a year now and didn’t have much street protest action under her belt. But when Israelis called for a demonstration against the war at Heinrichplatz on July 30, she was the one to read out their communique, looking both angry and nervous. Nearly 500 people marched to Kotti that day, chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” in Hebrew and a handful of other languages as well.

With his long black dreadlocks, 27-year-old programmer and musician David Nelband, looks the part of Berlin protester. In comparison to the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, Nelband is a relative veteran to Palestinian-organised demonstrations in Berlin. At Adenauer Platz he heard a man shouting slogans against “Judenschweine”, with several dozen people chiming in. “A devastating moment,” he says, but he also emphasises that most demonstrations he’d been to clearly reject anti-Semitism.

For Shahar, Israel’s claim to be a Jewish democratic state is oxymoronic: “De facto, it’s mostly Jewish and hardly democratic.” That’s why she objects to anti-Zionism being equated to anti-Semitism: “Israel claims to represent all Jewish people, even in the diaspora, but it’s not true.”

Israel’s impact

“My friends in Israel are in a state of despair,” says Etay Naor, a copy editor and musician. Demonstrations against the war in different cities in Israel have been regularly attacked by right-wing thugs, with the police looking away. In the month of July alone, there were 33 different right-wing attacks. “It’s much more dangerous to be an Arab or a leftist in Israel than to be an Israeli Jew in Berlin,” he explains.

The four-year Berliner doesn’t minimise the danger of anti-Semitism in history or today. But despite all the talk of a new wave of anti-Semitism on Germany’s streets, he can’t recall a single bad experience.

David Nelband can recall one incident in a döner shop in Wedding. When asked where he came from, he replied, “Russia.” But that was his choice. “I felt bad about it afterwards,” he regretfully says.

For Shahar, Israel’s wars “encourage anti-Semitism in the world” and even “endanger Jews in the diaspora”. That’s why she feels a responsibility to protest – to show that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

“I understand the German public is scared to touch this subject,” says Naor, but he knows one thing for certain: Israelis who are against the war need support. Especially because Germany isn’t some kind of neutral observer in the conflict: “Germany supports Israel both diplomatically and by sending weapons.” Nelband adds that Israelis participating in anti-war actions can help de-legitimise anti-Semitic arguments, showing that not all Jews support the state’s policies.

Conflict belongs to the politicians

“Being Jewish has never been easy,” Netter says, but he hasn’t had many problems in eight years in Berlin – except once, when an enormous and inebriated Chechen on the subway saw him reading a book in Hebrew and things got a little ugly. Netter thinks people in Berlin see the conflict “from a distance”, since it really “belongs to the politicians”.

He also doesn’t believe the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Berlin were anti-Semitic. He remembers his first gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2001: “The media coverage focused on people in extreme S&M gear and drag garb, even though the majority of people hadn’t put much thought into their outfits.” In the same way, the media at Berlin demonstrations focus on the few individuals with anti-Semitic slogans, since that attracts the most attention.

Berlin, at end of the day, is a city where young Egyptians can dance to the latest Israeli pop hits. Netter might not go to demonstrations – he thinks that these days political protest, just like party promotion, is more effective via Facebook and other social media. But he is still a strong believer in peace. And a basement party, just like a street demonstration, can sow the seeds.


Photo: Michal Andrysiak

Ken Loach: “We’re unstoppable”

26 Mar


At this year’s Berlinale, British director Ken Loach was honoured with a lifetime achievement award for 50 years of cinema. The filmmaker and veteran political activist hasn’t lost his faith in the power of workers to bring about change. While in Berlin he spoke about the party he co-founded in 2013, Left Unity.

“The working class still exists,” presses Ken Loach before a crowd of Berlin activists – and watching Loach’s films won’t convince you of the contrary. Famously, Ken Loach doesn’t make films about action heroes or financial wizards. He focuses on the people who have to do the clean-up after a thrilling chase scene, or who get duped by greedy bankers.

The everyday struggles of the working class have provided material for a half-century of films, from the 1966 BBC homelessness docudrama Cathy Come Home; to 1985’s Berlinale Forum selection Which Side Are You On?, about the UK miners’ strike; to 2001’s The Navigators, about railway workers oppressed by management.

It might no longer be in fashion to make explicitly political art in the style of leftist provocateurs like Bertolt Brecht or John Heartfield, but Loach is somehow keeping the tradition alive. Does he see his art as a form of agitation to bring people out onto the streets? “That might be a byproduct, but that’s certainly not the function,” he says. His engagement has never been confined to the screen as exemplified by a lifetime of political activism, from Trotskyism to Labour to a brand new party: Left Unity.

On the same day Loach received his Berlinale honours, he gave a talk titled “The Crisis in Europe and the New Formation of the Radical Left” at Berlin’s Haus der Demokratie. At 10am on a Friday, the organisers expected about 20 attendees; instead, Loach spoke to a packed-to-the-rafters crowd of 150.

With his small frame and thick glasses, Loach has the friendly, unassuming manner of a bookkeeper. The man might not speak like a firebrand, but after nearly five decades of battles he still believes in the possibility of a fairer, better system, and people believe in him.

“We have power. And, my God, we need to get organised.” That’s the leitmotif of his career-long struggle: faith in the working class, despite the disappointments and setbacks. Sometimes the worst enemy might not be conservative forces but the constant infighting.

His political engagement started in 1964. By that point a television director, Loach, who had studied law at Oxford but not forgotten his working-class upbringing, became upset by the lack of working people’s voices in the media.

He joined the Labour Party and, a few years later, came into the orbit of a Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Labour League (SLL). The SLL wanted to replace the police with a workers’ militia, among other radical policies, but nonetheless formed a current within Labour, attracting several famous faces: actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave were in the Central Committee, and John Lennon is reported to have made donations. Loach was one of a number of TV directors who worked closely with the organisation. Now, he says he was “a member” before correcting himself. “I was close to the SLL.”

Looking back, Loach sees a project paralysed by sectarianism. “Each little group had their own newspaper, and your biggest competitor was the man selling the newspaper next to you.”

The fierce infighting even affected Loach’s personal life. “A good friend of mine named Paul Foot was in the International Socialists, another Trotskyist organisation. We lived quite near each other and we both had small children. We used to meet and the children would play football. I got a call one day and it was the General Secretary of the SLL. He said: ‘What’s this I hear? Your children are playing football with the enemy?’ I said I was sorry and we stopped playing football. It was nearly 30 years before I was on a platform with Paul Foot. And we agreed about everything.”

When the SLL ditched the Labour Party and gradually drifted towards supporting Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Loach stuck with Labour – for which he was branded a traitor by his former comrades. He remained a member for 30 years, but lived through two “critical moments” that showed this organisation didn’t have much to offer working people.

“First was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, when the post-war settlement of the welfare state came under attack,” he recalls. Mines and factories closed – three million people lost their jobs overnight. Loach witnessed how the trade union leaders held back every struggle in the name of negotiations that went nowhere. “The second was in 1985 with the huge strike of the miners.” Here too, the trade unions and the Labour Party boycotted the struggle. “And we lost,” Loach recalled. He resigned from the party in the mid-1990s.

As Labour governments got involved in privatising health and education and carrying out unpopular wars abroad, Loach lost faith in the existing parties and started looking for an alternative for the real left… only to find a panoply of smaller organisations, many working at cross purposes.

Loach is convinced that during the Iraq War, when up to two million people marched in London against the Blair government, they missed a historic opportunity to build up a mass party on the left: “If only we had had a table every hundred metres that said ‘sign here’…”. The Socialist Alliance and the RESPECT coalition had already given it a try. But, like the rest before them, they had fallen victim to bitter infighting. “So now we’re trying a third time.”

In March of last year, Loach launched a call to action. His documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the sweeping social changes in Britain after the Second World War, had just premiered at the 2013 Berlinale. Inspired by his protagonists, who “transformed the lives of ordinary people”, Loach appealed for a new, unified party of the left. Ten thousand people signed his online petition, and in November, the party Left Unity was formed at a meeting of 400 in London. Loach claims the party now has over 1400 members – and, already, plenty of disagreements.

“There is a large number of individual campaigns,” Loach explains, but his aim is to unite all these activists under the umbrella of one party. “If we’re all on the same team, we’re unstoppable.” The veteran of social cinema hasn’t lost his faith in the power of the people.

“My ambition is to be a rank-and-file member,” says Loach. “Also for reasons of age.” Though the 77-year-old works more as a grey eminence than a leader in the new party, by most accounts, he has a giant influence on the debates.

But how does it feel to be a socialist at the Berlinale being driven around in giant Audis and accompanied by three bodyguards? Loach briefly seems lost for words as he turns to the young man standing next to him with a suit and an earpiece. “We’re friends!” he says, and they both smile.

Originally published in Exberliner #125, March 2014.


Photo: Veronica Jonsson

“There are women like us who like their jobs.”

7 Mar


Is prostitution anti-feminist? The sex work debate in Germany shows no signs of abating and prominent feminists like Chantal Louis of Emma magazine have spearheaded a campaign against it. But that’s only one side of the argument. Some sex workers in Germany argue the merits of their profession.

Fabienne (aka Lady Velvet Steel) and Kristina Marlen, both in their mid-30s, have been working in the sex industry for more than five years, as a classical dominatrix and a tantric dominatrix respectively. Both are active in the German Trade Association for Erotic and Sexual Services.

How did you enter the profession?

Lady Velvet Steel: I was involved in BDSM for a long time previously. The bar where I was working shut down and I needed money to get through the winter. So I started working professionally. Before that I used to work in a workshop for plastic models – breathing toxic fumes for €5.50 an hour! I felt much more prostituted then than I do now.

Kristina Marlen: I trained as a physical therapist. But I didn’t want to exclude my sexuality from my work. It’s my passion, you could say. Plus, as a therapist I was only making €10.50 an hour, and that wasn’t working out for me.

The prostitution law passed in 2002 was supposed to empower prostitutes by making them eligible for social security and health insurance benefits – but according to Die Welt, there are only 44 Angestellte prostitutes in Germany. Why might that be?

KM: The law wanted to make prostitutes normal Angestellte (employees), wage earners. But the reality is that most sex workers are self-employed in one way or another and for them, it’s still hard to get social insurance. The biggest problem is the stigmatisation of sex work.

LVS: We understand we’re both in a privileged position. Not everyone can live in Kreuzberg. In a small town in Brandenburg you can’t register at the Finanzamt as a whore because everyone knows everyone. And both of us don’t have children – if you have a kid, sex work can be used against you in a custody case, or the child can get harassed in the school yard. So lots of people are officially registered with other, related trades: masseur, partner therapy, sexual counsellor, etc.

What’s your take on the scandal sparked by Alice Schwarzer’s 2013 book Prostitution: A German Scandal?

KM: Schwarzer is starting this debate just to sell her book. She doesn’t want to listen to the women she claims to speak for. Do-gooders and so-called feminists are working together with extremely reactionary forces against prostitution. Amazingly, despite all the discussion there are no good statistics about the sex industry, just imaginary numbers repeated over and over again.

LVS: Any big research institute could do a serious study – it’s just a question of the political will to pay for it. Journalists who write about the sex industry only confirm the drastic picture they already had.

So sex trafficking is just an invention from scandal-hungry journalists?

KM: Of course there are abuses in the sex industry. But you can also find immigrants from eastern Europe working in terrible jobs in meatpacking plants or in home care. No one talks about prohibiting these professions. What we want to do is strengthen the position of sex workers so they can have their rights.

According to Detlef Ubben, head of the Hamburg Commission for Human Trafficking, 95 percent of sex workers are in one way or another “forced prostitutes”. What do you answer to that?

LVS: If someone is unhappy with their job and does it anyway, does that person need to be rescued? What does ‘forced’ mean anyway? People who are forced with violence and treated like slaves? Or does this include people who are ‘forced’ because they have to pay rent and feed themselves or their children? Many foreign construction workers in Dubai work under conditions of modern slavery. Does this mean we should prohibit the construction industry? In many years in the industry, I’ve never met a sex worker who didn’t choose the profession herself. Every case of trafficking is one too many, but that can’t be used to criminalise the whole sector.

The police claim that the 2002 law prevents them from fighting against the criminal part of the industry.

KM: The police don’t need more power – they can already go into brothels at any time if they want to. But shouldn’t it be the Gewerbeamt, the business department, doing inspections, the same as at a café? Is it good for sex workers to be visited by police with guns and body armour? Any attempt at prohibition goes against the interests of the prostitutes. There are cases where johns report human trafficking. Will anyone be willing to report if that implies denouncing oneself for a crime? If the client can be punished, that only creates disadvantages for the sex workers themselves.

What about the long-term psychological effects of the profession? Especially in ‘flat-rate’ brothels, where women might see dozens of men per day…

LVS: In the current discussion flat-rate brothels are portrayed as horror stories. But colleagues from our association have worked in these places. There might be abuses at some, but women there generally get a fixed rate. Some people prefer that to a situation like mine with a studio, where I might not have any clients in a day and therefore no income. In reality, flat-rate is just a marketing trick. Be honest: how often can you go more than three times in a night?

From a feminist perspective, isn’t sex work ultimately an expression of inequality between men and women?

KM: Sex work mirrors power relations in a patriarchal society, but it also means playing with them. From Focault we learned that power relations are complex. I grew up with a subscription to Emma and wore a “Por-No” sticker on my backpack when I was 15. But that doesn’t fit with the experiences I’ve had in the industry. For example, there is sexual therapy for people with physical or mental disabilities. I just came from a session with a person who has a muscle condition and can’t masturbate. Many of the clients in this sector are women.

What does your trade association propose?

KM: We need to improve working conditions through comprehensive counselling, health care and education services. All these measures cost more money than prohibitive laws that make the problems less visible. This whole discussion ignores the fact that there are women like us who like our jobs. A ban won’t help the women involved – or did people stop drinking during Prohibition in the US?

Originally published in Exberliner #124, February 2014.


Photo: Astrid Warberg

Getting by with the minimum

5 Feb


Under the new government, Germany is on track for getting a minimum wage of €8.50 per hour. But don’t go on that spending spree quite yet: even after the law goes into effect, many Berliners – including plenty of expats – will keep working for next to nothing.

Forming a new governing coalition is hard work. Angela Merkel from the CDU, Horst Seehofer from the CSU and Sigmar Gabriel from the SPD spent 17 hours putting the final touches on their agreement. It wasn’t until 5:30 in the morning of November 27 that the parties finished their discussions in the SPD headquarters in Kreuzberg and voted for the 185-page coalition contract. But at least all this work is well paid: Merkel, as Chancellor and head of her party, makes a monthly wage of €17,043 (plus a bonus month’s worth of wages every year). Gabriel as a member of parliament earns €10,864, while Seehofer, Bavaria’s prime minister, makes €15,431 every month.

Another difficult job is that of kitchen assistant. Miguel Sanz works in an Italian restaurant, washing dishes, cleaning floors and making pizzas from noon until 10pm. For these 10 hours a day, six days a week, Sanz – a 33-year-old from Seville who studied and worked in environmental protection in his home country – gets €1250 per month. That’s just €5 an hour – and perfectly legal in Germany.

On the surface, the decision by the newly formed coalition to implement a national minimum wage would seem like good news for Sanz. Yet the new law does not necessarily guarantee that he – or the 5.6 million other people in Germany working for less than €8.50 an hour right now – will be any better off than he is today.

Ten years of discussions

Germany’s lack of a minimum wage has been a topic for a decade. Since the Social-Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder introduced the Agenda 2010 reforms in 2003, Germany has become a land of low wages. Twenty-four percent of workers in Germany are in the Niedriglohn­sektor, earning less than 60 percent of the median wage: the highest rate in the European Union. In the last elections, the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke called for wages of at least €8.50 per hour.

These three parties won a majority of seats in the Bundestag and could have passed a law on a minimum wage before any new government was formed. Instead, the SPD preferred to fight for it in their negotiations for a grand coalition with the CDU. Their results: there will be a minimum wage of €8.50 starting in January of 2015 – but critics already warn that by that time, inflation will mean that €8.50 is worth less than it is today. And even then, there will still be exceptions.

In sectors where the collective contract allows wages below €8.50, the minimum wage won’t be implemented until January 2017. Currently, hairdressers in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt have a collective contract that allows them only €3.05 an hour – and this will still be legal for three more years.

Juice and kiosks

Even when the law goes into effect, businesses will still find ways to exploit workers, especially foreigners desperate for work and without a full knowledge of their rights. Carmela Negrete’s first job in Berlin was selling orange juice at a kebab shop for €5 an hour. “Eight hours, standing up in the cold, for €40,“ she remembers. By the fourth day, she had a terrible cold and couldn’t go to work – on sick days, of course, she got nothing at all.

So she took a job at a kiosk, working 30 hours a month for €6 an hour. Instead of a job contract, there was a list of rules taped to the counter. “If you arrived more than 10 minutes late, you would have to pay €10.” Wages were paid whenever funds were available, sometimes after weeks of delays. The 27-year-old from Huelva in Spain had no choice but to comply: a journalist by profession, she could not pay the bills in Berlin with reporting alone.

“At least we got to climb for free,” says Thorben Korfhage about his job at an indoor climbing hall in Wedding. Beyond that, they only received €7.50 an hour. If money was missing from the register, they had to pay the difference out of pocket. “One guy had to pay €30 in one month,“ he remembers, “because when it gets really full, anyone can give the wrong change.” Many of the workers refused to sacrifice part of their salaries, and the 27-year-old economics student called the trade union ver.di and was informed this was clearly illegal. After a petition from the staff, management agreed to pay 50 cents per hour extra to anyone working the register, and money missing from the register could only be taken out of this extra payment. Nonetheless, wages there remain below €8.50.

“A minimum wage would mean I would have more time for my studies,” Korfhage says. “I could work five hours less a week and make the same money.” Yet there is no indication that the shady activity at his and Negrete’s workplaces will stop once a minimum wage is in place. Experts estimate that 2000 additional work inspectors would be necessary to ensure that businesses respect the law, and no new positions are currently planned.

Worse than Spain

“The laws here are worse than in Spain,” explains Sanz. There, you can sue an employer for paying less than the wage defined by the collective bargaining agreement. Employers must also provide written contracts – in Germany, oral contracts are also allowed. More important are the trade unions: “In Spain, a cafe owner will be a bit afraid that we’ll organise a picket out on the street and customers will stay away.” Germany’s businesses, with the exception of a few pockets in the retail sector, don’t have to worry much about angry employees because so few low-wage workers are in trade unions. However, as Korfhage’s case shows, even a simple phone call to a union and a letter can bring about small improvements.

There are all kinds of legal exceptions to the labour laws already, many of them involving the state welfare system. Negrete went on welfare after nine months of combining a newspaper internship with a €400 mini-job. Since benefits can be cut for refusing a job offer, there is enormous pressure to take any work at all, no matter how poorly paid. “Hartz IV creates extreme control mechanisms,” says Negrete of her experience with the state unemployment subsidy, which forces recipients to follow Byzantine rules.

“At the same time, it forces people to get jobs off the books.” So-called Schwarzarbeit, whether collecting bottles or working in a shop, is the only way to earn a significant amount on top of benefits. “Without cheating, it’s impossible to survive,” she says. “With a minimum wage, they’ll agree to pay you €8.50 an hour, but then they’ll ask you to work for two.”

Getting off Hartz-IV, Negrete was told she would work three hours a day cleaning a three-storey elementary school. “It was me and a retired person,” she remembers. On the first day, it became clear that two people could not possibly finish the job in three hours. They would work five or six hours – and were promised they would get the overtime back later in the form of paid vacation days. The retiree disappeared soon, but Negrete was worried that quitting would mean a benefit cut from the Jobcenter.

She was then joined by women from Romania, a young refugee, and an endless cycle of people doing unpaid ‘trial’ work days. “They yelled at us, they insulted us, they told us we were good for nothing,” she remembers. And when she left after three months, there was no question of getting back wages for having worked almost twice as much as agreed. “The minimum wage won’t mean anything,” she reflects.

The real effects

Opponents of the minimum wage law have said it will destroy jobs. For Sanz, who has also been involved in trade union work, it’s simply not true. “Employers hire people not because they want to give away money, but because they require a concrete service.” One restaurant owner who didn’t want to be quoted said with a shrug that he would have to raise prices if he had to pay his employees €8.50. But there’s really no question of getting rid of waiters entirely. Korfhage, the economics student and climber, agrees that there’s no danger to employment: “It’s not like they could reduce personnel at the climbing hall. At most, they could pass on higher costs to consumers.”

However, the law could result in an increase in that breed of worker already found all over Berlin, especially among young English speakers: the freelancer. Some call centres already classify their phone bank employees as “independent contractors,” paying them €8.50 an hour but forcing them to ‘rent’ their workspace for €1. This kind of Scheinselbstständigkeit (fake self-employed status) will only get worse with the implementation of a minimum wage. If a law mandates that waiters must be paid €8.50 an hour, there may soon be ‘freelance’ waiters getting paid per table served, rather than per hour worked, and earning much less.

“It’s not all about bad capitalists trying to exploit people. The Berlin economy is notoriously bad. Taxes and social contributions are high – times are also tough on employers, and believe me, we’re trying our best,” says Silvia (name changed), owner of a digital publishing company. The reality is that many smaller independent companies in the Berlin creative sector have to rely on “atypische Beschäftigungsverhältnisse”, a bureaucratic term for anyone without a full-time contract and social insurance.

There are hordes of young people who want work in attractive fields such as media, journalism or design – and small companies that can provide work but can’t afford full-time salaries. Were they to pay €8.50 to everyone, some employees would simply have their hours cut. “Every bit of profit we make gets reinvested into people,” continues Silvia. “Often we give our employees the choice between a higher freelance fee or a smaller staff wage, which in reality costs us much more.”

High payroll taxes and social security contributions in Germany are often a deterrent to staff contracts. “Many prefer a freelance status and more cash in hand; some would rather be paid less, but have their social security costs covered… I guess everyone’s got to be flexible.” So, how much will the new law affect their company? “Frankly, I’m not quite sure…”

What is for sure is that even if €8.50 becomes the law of the land, Berlin will remain a capital of Hartz-IV and precarious employment. In the coming years, in this city’s cutthroat market, we are going to see endlessly creative means of getting around the minimum wage.

Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.


Photo: Tania Castellví

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

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

At sea on O-platz

13 Nov


Vincent’s journey took him from Libya through Lampedusa to Berlin. Now living in Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz refugee camp, the young Nigerian immigrant is out of options… and dreading the coming winter.

“It was a very bizarre experience.” That’s how Vincent describes the Libyan civil war and the NATO bombing campaign that started on February 15, 2011, a war that drove him from Tripoli to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and, more than two years later, to the protest camp on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz.

Vincent’s journey started in Tripoli, where the young Nigerian was working on building sites – just one of 1.5 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa doing menial jobs in oil-rich Libya. When the Western military intervention started, he recalls, “I was hiding indoors for seven days without food or electricity. Eventually, I said to myself: If I die, then I die, but I have to go.” On the streets of Tripoli, he was stopped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. They asked what Vincent was doing: “Starving,” he answered, “and looking for food.”

The Libyan authorities wanted to send a message to the European powers: if Gaddafi fell, then there would be no one to hold back a flood of refugees across the Mediterranean. So Vincent, along with hundreds of African workers, was rounded up and taken to a seaside camp outside the capital. It was just before midnight when government soldiers told them all to get on a boat. “We didn’t know where we were going,” he recalls, and most people refused to get on board. “They beat people – I got a slap in my face that I will never forget for the rest of my life.” Eventually, 400 people were forced onto the boat, and Vincent was stuck on one of the lower decks.

After six hours the boat stopped dead in the water. “Christians were calling to God and Muslims to Allah,” Vincent recalls. The motor’s fan belt was broken and there was no replacement. After half a day, the problem was resolved and the boat headed back to Tripoli. “We were just 100 metres from the port we had started from,” he says.

Twenty-four hours after their original forced departure, they took off on another boat.

But that same night, the second boat stopped: “It was leaking. We had to carry up water in buckets.” When it was fixed and started moving again, the captain still wouldn’t reveal their destination. “We ran into fishermen who spoke with the captain in Arabic, and they said we were heading to Lampedusa. Around two in the morning, we saw a red light.” Eventually, a big rescue ship appeared behind them.

When they arrived on the island, the police, the army and Amnesty International were there to meet them. “We slept there for one night, then a ship from the Italian government took 2000 people to the mainland.” The ship stopped at different ports in Italy, dropping off refugees at each one, and Vincent got off in Genoa after six days, together with about 100 other refugees. He was lucky to have made it that far: another man at his camp was on a boat with 750 people on the same route, and after three hours they capsized. Half of the passengers were never found. These shipwrecks are not uncommon: just days before our interview, 270 more refugees had died off of Lampedusa.

The refugees got temporary asylum in Italy, but their refugee status allowed them to travel for up to three months within the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area. Very unofficially, Italian immigration officers suggested that they would have better chances if they went to northern Europe. “Some of us were empty-handed, others got €500.” After some time spent begging on the streets of Milan and a failed attempt to find work in Paris and Helsinki, Vincent eventually set his sights on Germany. “It took a long time to gather €80 from begging, but with that money I got a ticket to Berlin.”

At first Vincent stayed with another Nigerian in Berlin, but they soon ran out of money. Searching for help, they found the Oranienplatz camp, open since October 2012. Vincent has now been living there for four months. Like most of the ‘Lampedusa residents’, he’s overstayed the three months his Italian refugee status allows him, and the German authorities could deport him at any time.

On O-Platz there’s little German to be heard: mostly French and Arabic (which Vincent learned in Libya) or English. Often there is nothing to do but stand around, and the atmosphere can be tense – many people survived serious trauma but never got any professional help.

So far, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district mayor Monika Herrmann has been allowing the camp to stay. And some Berliners have been donating clothes, food, German classes or money for electricity. Yet the temperatures at night are quickly dropping, and Vattenfall has just sent the camp a €6000 electricity bill. Everyone here sleeps in tents – none of them adequate for cold weather. Once determined to squat the square no matter what, the O-Platz refugee-protesters are now hoping not to spend a second winter in the open.

With his Italian refugee document, Vincent can’t work in Germany; he would do nearly anything to earn money, though. “But I don’t want to be a notorious guy,” he adds, referring to drug dealing in nearby Görlitzer Park. Vincent is turning 30 next April, and every time he phones home his widowed mother asks him for money. “I don’t have a wife or children of my own, I don’t have a job. I really, really don’t know what I will do,” he says, standing in the tent that shelters him and 20 fellow Nigerians on O-Platz.

Originally published in Exberliner #121, November 2013.


Picture: Tania Castellví

Should expats get the vote?

5 Sep


Berliners will be voting in Germany’s federal elections on September 22. But roughly 440,000 – more than 10 percent of the city’s population – can’t go to the polls.

Not only Exberliner staffers are unhappy about this situation: campaigns are calling to extend voting rights to all Berliners regardless of their nationality.

The German elections are less than a month away, and Exberliner’s office in Mitte is… well, “buzzing” is not quite the right word. “Bored” might be closer. In fact, it would be easy to forget the voting entirely if we didn’t have our September politics special to worry about.

One reason is that the election itself is a sleeper. Who’s going to get excited about the 100 to 1 odds that Merkel will be re-elected chancellor? But another reason is that a big chunk of our team can’t participate. Many of us – from the editor to the author of this article – are among the roughly 440,000 Berliners who lack voting rights because they have no German passport.

EU citizens living in Berlin can participate in the elections for the district parliaments (Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen or BVV) and the EU parliament as well as referendums at a district level. But they can’t vote for the mayor, the senate or the parliament of Berlin – and certainly not for the Bundestag. Meanwhile, Berliners with a passport from outside the EU can’t vote on anything.

In the office

Erica, our art director, votes in national elections in her native Finland and in local elections in Berlin. She doesn’t want to vote for Germany’s Bundestag: “I don’t know how to vote tactically to get a particular coalition,” she says. “I would need a one-week course to understand that.” On the other hand, she doesn’t understand why her communal voting rights apply to her district but not to the city as a whole: “I’m as much a citizen of Berlin as of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.” She’d also like to participate in the upcoming referendum on the re-communalisation of the energy grid.

Walter, our web editor, cast his vote for the last US presidential election from Berlin – it was counted in San Francisco, his last place of residence in the States. “It was clear that Obama would win, the same way that Merkel will win now”, he remembers, but he voted for Obama anyway. “I needed to participate in democracy since it’s the only thing I can do for the US.” The 30-year-old columnist for the gay magazine Siegessäule likes protests as well, but living right at Kottbusser Tor, the almost daily demonstrations tend to blend together. He cares about local issues like rents, drug policy and public transport – “and we should just abandon that new airport” – but he’s not too interested in Germany’s political parties: “I’m not investing much time in that if I can’t vote.”

Laura (name changed), a staffer, might be the last person you’d expect to vote here. She moved to Berlin less than two years ago from the US. Her German is halting, but her passport nonetheless proclaims Deutsch. Her grandfather fled from Hamburg in 1938 and, after spending the war in Shanghai, eventually settled in California. In 2008, he and all his living descendants acquired German citizenship. Now Laura is one of the small number of Berliners who hold two passports. This is her first German election, and she is leaning towards Die Linke or the Greens, although during our conversation she confuses the social-democratic SPD with the hyperliberal FDP. She’s talking to her local friends to get a feeling for her options. “People here really think about who they are going to vote for”, she reflects, “whereas in the US it’s automatically clear which of the two parties you’ll support.”

On the bike

“As a Berlin Turk from the Black Sea coast, I don’t want it to be like this” says Aydin Akin. The 70-year-old has lived in the city for 45 years, working as a tax consultant for Berlin workers, primarily from Turkey and Arab countries. But you probably know him for something else: Every day, Aydin rides his bike through eight of Berlin’s districts with a whistle and protest signs demanding the right to vote. He also calls for tax equality, since non-EU citizens pay higher taxes even though they get fewer services. The messages on his signs might be too small to read, but they’re always on the same topic.

Aydin has been doing this every single day since September 2005 (two federal elections ago), “including on Sundays and holidays”. How far has he been so far? “At the end of June, the stand was 100,200 kilometres,” he says. In the same time, he’s written exactly 32,131 letters and e-mails to countless politicians and political groups. “If the demands aren’t met, I’ll keep biking and protesting to the cemetery,” he swears. These protest forms might seem quixotic, but Aydin has also helped organize larger bicycle demonstrations as well as symbolic votes for foreigners.

In their own Heimat

Kathleen O’Brien was born and raised in Germany; her parents were Irish and English citizens who got their child an Irish passport because the Irish consulate had the simplest procedure. She could try to get a double passport now, 26 years later, but that would mean lots of forms and even more fees. “Not particularly enticing.” So she can’t vote in Germany, except at the communal level, but she can’t vote in Ireland either, where residency is required as well as citizenship. “In view of Ireland’s high number of emigrants, this makes sense to me,” she says, and she doesn’t follow the national politics of a country where she’s never lived. “My parents have been living in Germany for 30 years and they’ve never been able to elect a representative at a national level,” she says. The worker in cultural management would like a right to vote herself: “No taxation without representation!”

“If I give up my passport, I lose the last piece of my roots,” explains Monika Hubar. She moved to Germany from Poland at the age of four, just before the Iron Curtain fell, and the 30-year-old has been living in Germany ever since. She has kept her Polish passport: “If I could get a German one as well, I would do that.” But the introduction of double passports was blocked more than a decade ago by conservative politicians. Now the young woman has one passport but two countries: “In Germany I’m called a Pole, but in Poland I am dismissed as a German,” she explains. “I have an accent in both languages.” She went to the Polish embassy in Berlin to vote once – “to get rid of the Kaczyński twins” – and she also voted in a district-level referendum in 2009 in Tempelhof-Schöneberg about keeping the Tempelhof Airport open, but that was after the city-wide referendum on the same topic had already been defeated, so the whole thing was later declared invalid. “I would vote if I could, but since I can’t, the elections don’t really interest me,” she concludes.

In the parliaments

The conservative party CDU is in favour of the current system: if you want to be a German citizen, you must give up all loyalties to other countries. If you can’t or don’t want to do that for whatever reason, then: no double passports, no voting rights, and higher taxes. But most parties in the parliament are in favour of reform. The SPD and Die Linke call for expanded voting rights for foreigners. The Greens have put up election posters in Neukölln featuring a woman with two passports and the slogan “Double is Better.” The Pirates want “voting rights for all Berliners, regardless of nationality”. But so far, reform has got caught up in the cogs of the political machine: the coalition contract of Berlin’s “red-black” government excludes any expanded voting rights, so the SPD is currently voting against its own position and in line with the CDU.

In the meantime, Berliners without German citizenship are getting active. A campaign called “Wahlrecht für alle” (“voting rights for all”) organised a “symbolic election” in the run-up to the local elections in September of 2011. For years there have been “symbolic elections” for people under 18, and now Berliners without a German passport had the chance to show their preferences – and also their desire to participate in democracy. On September 4, two weeks before the real election, 2371 non-voters went to 82 polling stations. The results were about what you’d expect: Non-citizens were more likely to vote for the SPD and the Greens, while only 8 percent cast a vote for the CDU. They were less likely than average to vote for Die Linke, the Pirates or – naturally – the neo-Nazi party NPD. And non-citizens, just like citizens, didn’t vote for the FDP at all.

The “Wahlrecht für alle” campaign is now organising a protest action in the government quarter on September 14. A long line of people are going to wait in front of a giant ballot box to protest against democratic deficits in the current system. European elections are coming up again in May of next year: Germany has 96 representatives in the European parliament, but this number is calculated according to the number of residents, not of citizens. Almost 4.5 million people are represented by people they can’t vote for.

“Germany should belong to the population and not to ‘the Germans!'” says Janika Oberg from the association Jede Stimme (“every vote”) that is supporting the campaign. “Lots of Berliners have lived here for decades, work here, are active and pay taxes,” she explains. Many of them can’t get a passport for administrative reasons but have a right to be involved in decisions that affect their lives. This isn’t a utopian demand either: 16 countries in Europe and as many as 45 worldwide offer some voting rights to foreign citizens.

Until there is a solution, which will have to be at a federal level in Germany, there are lots of possibilities for political activity – German passport or not! Non-citizens can become a member of a party and campaign for elections. We can protest and demonstrate just as well as passport holders. We can’t sign petitions for referendums, but we can still collect signatures from citizens. So Germany’s federal elections are a good time to get active about the topics relevant to you – whether it’s rents, education, the environment or Germany’s role in the euro crisis – if for no other reason than to annoy the CDU.


Photo: Maia Schoenfelder

Leftists behind bars

13 Aug

anarchist bars

They might seem intimidating at first, but these Berlin hangouts keep the city’s rebellious spirit alive. The cheap drinks don’t hurt, either.

BAIZ: No Becks, no latte, no bullshit… But for how long?

It all started 10 years ago. Matthias, a big guy with a blonde ponytail and a leather vest who wouldn’t look out of place in a motorcycle gang, had been living in an occupied house in Prenzlauer Berg since 1990. He did regular shifts at the bar there, but “at some point I noticed I was 10 years older than all the people on the other side of the counter,” the old-school East Berliner recalls. He wanted to create something more professional, a space that was open every day with multiple events a week. so in 2003, BAIZ was born right on the border between Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

“Baiz” is actually a Swiss German word for a local tavern, but the bar with the black-red flag is a true Berliner Eckkneipe: smoke-filled, noisy and initially aggressive. A sign advertises “No Becks, no latte, no bullshit.” Instead, there is Berliner Pilsner for €1.90, Zapatista coffee from Chiapas and, if you’re in the market for luxury, a shot of Cuban rum for just over €2. They used to serve €1 shots until they noticed tourists from nearby hostels would come by to drink themselves warm on the cheap.

Regulars include neighbours, political activists and a crazy person or two, ranging in age from students to 90-year-old grandmothers. The black-clad staff try to live by their left-wing principles: “On paper, I’m the boss,” explains Matthias, “but in practice all the people who work here make the decisions together.”

At the end of last year, they discovered an advertisement on the internet: apartments in their building would be available for sale by the summer, and the BAIZ space could be rented out as an office soon after. Their contract was set to expire in October and the building owners planned to renovate the entire building and sell it as luxury condominiums. The contract has since been extended to February, but BAIZ’ future is still very much in jeopardy. As soon as word got out, 120 regulars – scared of losing a hang-out and a source of cheap beer – crammed into the back room to form a “BAIZ bleibt!” initiative. they’re going to try the legal route first, but “people might do things we don’t know anything about,” says Matthias. “A Barman Can Bear No Responsibility For What His Customers Do.”

For now, the little bar is full. The back room features regular screenings of films from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, even silent Eisenstein films with live musical accompaniment. If you’re lucky, you might hear a talk by former terrorist Knofo Kröcher about kidnapping a conservative politician in the 1970s. Maybe the 14-member East Berlin band “Bolschewistische Kurkapelle Schwarz-Rot” will hold a cramped concert in the back. And of course, there are continuous political meetings: as soon as the Marxist-leaning school newspaper Red Brain packs up, the “anarcho-syndicalist youth” sit down. With all this support, these indomitable anarchists might yet hold out for a while.

BAIZ, Christinenstr. 1, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz

ABSTAND: Punks’ paradise

In an increasingly tamed Friedrichshain, Rigaer Straße is a defiant bastion of punkhood. Among the squatted houses, the façade of a soon-to-be-completed luxury apartment building is stained black from a trash can blaze set by persons unknown. And at the corner of Silvio-Meier-Straße, a street recently renamed after a young antifascist murdered by neo-Nazis in 1992, sits the Abstand. On a summer night, you will meet dozens of leather-clad punks sitting on the sidewalk, accompanied by at least as many dogs. Both species occasionally get into shouting matches and can be scary at first. But Lena, a young woman with blue hair and more piercings than we could count, was happy to tell us about the location.

Open since 2009, the bar is technically a “private club”, where a €1 ‘donation’ buys you a bottle of a Sternburg. Its building on Rigaer Straße has been occupied for 23 years – longer than many of its residents have been alive. Now the residents have a 99-year lease, and they are planning to buy the building outright.

As legal residents, they are not often harassed by the police. “If there is stress, it’s usually from familiar faces,” Lena explains. They ask people to go outside if they insist on fighting. Dogs are also okay, “as long as they don’t bark constantly or pee everywhere.” One punk at the bar remembers a drinking game: “We would take a shot every time one of the dogs pissed in the corner.” But even the Abstand is experiencing gentrification, in its own small way: the bathrooms, once legendarily rancid, were remodeled a few months ago.

“We’re apolitical,” Lena says. “At least, we’re not politically correct.” Of course the bar is against Nazis and sexism – a big poster on the wall exclaims “no means no!” and shows a woman with a pair of bolt cutters – but Abstand serves meat in their Volxküche, alongside vegan hamburgers. And what do they think about tourists walking down from antje Øklesund down the street? “Tourists tend to be uncertain. They walk by, look in the window, and usually move on.”

Abstand, Rigaer Str. 78, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Samariterstr.

DIE TAGUNG: Eastern wonderland

“Restricted area!” “State border!” “Mines!” the signs at the door don’t exactly make you feel welcome – more like you are approaching the Berlin Wall and are about to be shot. But inside, Die Tagung, a remnant from an earlier time in the trendiest part of Friedrichshain, looks a lot more upbeat. The walls are decked with diverse memorabilia from the german Democratic Republic, from the blue flags of the Free German Youth (FDJ) and busts of Marx and Lenin to cigarette ads and price lists from a bakery – as long as it’s Eastern, you can see it here.

The bar has been around since 1992. “All this stuff was just lying around on the street, and the founder thought it was a shame that it was being thrown away,” remembers Dodo, the owner. The East Berliner has been working here since 1998 – back when the bar included an illegal basement club – and took it over seven years ago.

She doesn’t think of East Germany as a paradise: as a child, she and her parents weren’t allowed to visit her grandparents on the border with Bavaria, due to the danger that they might flee. “If I had come of age there, I would have been the first to apply for an exit visa.” But now she’s running a bar stocked with Red October beer, Pfeffi schnapps, Wurzener crisps and Caro cigarettes.

Google the bar and you’ll find a review: “they hate tourists!” But not without reason: “I just don’t understand how people can take things off the wall to take pictures.” On the other hand, sometimes guests will bring their older parents from the East and “they’re just happy as biscuits to see all the stuff here. Sometimes they’ll even offer things to add to the collection.”

Afraid smaller items might end up stolen, Dodo keeps them at home, leaving things like a gigantic black bust of Julian Marchlewski, a Polish Communist who was a founder of the KPD. They got the statue years ago from the island of Usedom. Now a biography of Marchlewski taken from a GDR reference book is printed right in the menu – saves the trouble of telling his story every time.

Die Tagung, Wühlischstr. 29, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Warschauer Str.

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013.


Photo: Rasa Urnieziute