Tag Archives: social struggles

John Riceburg: Support the strike

9 Oct

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Imagine: Someday in the future, technology will be so advanced that public transport will run normally during the winter. In Berlin, however, as the days grow shorter and the waits for trains grow longer, that future seems far off…

“Dear passengers. The Trade Union of German Trade Drivers is calling for strikes. Please inform yourselves.” That was the announcement I heard, in German, when I wanted to take the S-Bahn on Tuesday around midday. I was wondering why the platform was full and the next train had been cancelled. The signs even included some information in English.

“Well, fuck this,” I thought to myself as I headed towards the U-Bahn (which is run by the BVG and therefore not affected by the stoppage). Not only is it morally repugnant to travel with scabs – it can also be downright dangerous if they don’t know what they’re doing, just see the two scabs who died during last year’s strike on the San Francisco subway.

But then I realised: the strike was only set to begin on Tuesday at 9pm and continue until 6am the next day. So the massive delays I was experiencing had nothing to do with the strike – it was just Berlin’s normal S-Bahn-Chaos. Winter is coming, and for the last five years that has meant massive delays for Berliners. And this has nothing to do with technology. As Exberliner has reported, this is a result of the S-Bahn skimping on maintenance.

Isn’t the S-Bahn a public company? Yes and no. It’s owned by the Deutsche Bahn, which is a private corporation that is 100 percent property of the German state. And therefore DB is not so much committed to providing transport as to maximising profits. The S-Bahn is heavily subsidised by tax money to help Berliners get around, but these subsidies are siphoned off so the Deutsche Bahn can invest in buying up bus companies in the Czech Republic or whatever their latest get-rich-quick-scheme is.

In the coming weeks, you’ll hear a lot about the “evil train drivers” who are ruining your commute for selfish reasons. But these men and women work terrible hours in a highly stressful job (that includes occasionally running over people on the tracks!). All they want are better wages. The press is simulating an outcry that the train drivers, like the pilots a few weeks ago, are “taking passengers hostage”. But that’s a lie. They’re striking. Stopping work to demand better conditions – it’s why unions are set up.

The Gewerkschaft deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL) has been aggressive about its demands in recent years. They strike more often than the larger union for train workers, the rival Eisenbahn und Verkehrsgewerkschaft (EVG), which is closely connected to the train company’s management (former EVG president Norbert Hansen went on to be head of human resources at the Bahn!). Now the government is talking about restricting the right to strike: The proposed Tarifeinheit (collective bargaining unity) would only allow the largest union in a company to go on strike, destroying smaller unions like the GDL or the pilots’ union Cockpit.

For me, the train strike will mean a few long waits on S-Bahn platforms. But that was already inevitable. And if the train drivers win, there are better chances that people like me from Berlin’s Kreativprekariat will get their act together and also fight for better wages and conditions. So don’t fall for the media hype against the train drivers. They are fighting the same people who ruined our S-Bahn. They are fighting for the right of all of us to strike.

Surely, that’s worth a few minutes’ wait on the platform, right?

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/why-i-support-the-train-drivers-strike/

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Getting by with the minimum

5 Feb

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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.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/features/lifestyle/getting-by-with-the-minimum/

Photo: Tania Castellví

Hamburg on the Barricades

26 Dec

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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?

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/hamburg-on-the-barricades/

Picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/woerpel/11481549103/

Christmas on the picket lines

11 Dec

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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.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/features/christmas-on-the-picket-lines/

Picture: Charlotte Eberwein

Holiday fun at Ikea

11 Dec

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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!

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/holiday-fun-at-ikea/

Picture: John Riceburg

Power to the People!

30 Oct

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When I was a child, it was lots of fun: with a pop, all the lights in the house would go out and my parents would search for flashlights and candles. During the blackout, which would last half an hour or more, there was no TV, but we could play a board game or learn how the house worked (who would have guessed the water would still flow without electricity?).

But those blackouts, which came at least once a year, were long ago and back in the United States. In my countless years in Germany I have never experienced a power outage. According to the official statistics, an average Berliner will be without electricity for just 10.7 minutes a year – and maybe I was asleep for those minutes because I haven’t noticed a thing.

Berlin’s electricity grid, in contrast to the long-suffering S-Bahn or the thoroughly ridiculed airport, actually works pretty well. But on November 3 (this Sunday), all Berlin residents with a German passport* can vote on what will happen with the grid. Is it a good idea to tinker with a working system?

The Berliner Energietisch (Berlin Energy Table), which collected 200,000 signatures in favour of the referendum, wants the grid to be re-communalized. This isn’t about the power plants but rather about the cables and substations that bring electricity to your house. The grid is sold off every 20 years and is currently run by a subsidiary of Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant which also sells electricity in Berlin. (Technically, it’s illegal for the same company to run the grid and feed electricity into it, but Vattenfall skirts that rule by claiming its wholly-owned subsidiary is a different company.)

The next concession is beginning in 2014 and the referendum is trying to force the Berlin Senat to buy back the grid and establish a communal electricity supplier. The grid alone might cost anywhere from €1 billion to over €3 billion, depending on who you ask. The governing parties have been terribly upset: they are spending several million euros to not hold the referendum on the day of the federal elections on September 22, as originally planned, when more voters would have turned out.

Just last week, the CDU and the SPD threw parliamentary norms out the window in order to rush a bill through the Abgeordnetenhaus to create a municipal utility company right before the polls open. This Babystadtwerk (mini-utility) would have a budget of just €1.5 million – enough to run about five wind turbines and provide power for 200 households! The only discernible purpose of this new power company is to confuse people about the referendum and keep them from voting.

Now, you might ask, do we really want the same government that has thrown away billions for the never-ending airport adventure to take over our electricity distribution? The Energietisch argues that citizens’ representatives would sit on the board of the new public electricity provider, not just the usual Berlin mafiosi and their political cronies. Plus, it will allow Berlin to transition to renewable energies: currently, the capital gets just 1.5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, since Vattenfall uses coal for more than 90 percent of its energy.

The most important thing about a municipally-owned grid is that the profits would stay in the city. Last weekend, Vattenfall paid for four-page supplements in the big Berlin newspapers. These gigantic advertisements had a layout that looked just like Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost etc. so readers wouldn’t notice the articles praising Vattenfall weren’t normal editorial content. (Technically, it’s illegal for a grid to advertise, since they already have a monopoly, but Vattenfall again skirts this rule by saying that their subsidiary runs the grid.)

How much do you think this kind of advertising blitz costs? And where do you think the money comes from? That’s right – from you, me and everyone else who uses electricity in this city. Wouldn’t you rather see that money invested in renewable energy rather than marketing campaigns and dividends for stockholders? The entire logic of privatization has never worked out for consumers.

The referendum campaign has advertised that “Berlin without Vattenfall is like a Bundestag without the FDP.” I’m certainly not the only one who has felt more relaxed since Germany’s hyper-liberals got booted out of parliament. It wouldn’t bother me either if the giant Vattenfall sign disappeared from over Tresor. Come to think of it, maybe they could take Tresor along with them.

* If, like me, you aren’t allowed to vote, you can still go to the demonstration for the re-communalization of housing and energy. People will be banging pots on November 2 (this Saturday) at 14:30 at Kottbusser Tor, right in front of the “Kotti und Co” protest camp. And demonstrations are a fun activity for kids – almost as fun as a power outage!

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/john-riceburg-power-to-the-people/

Picture: John Riceburg

Taksim am Kotti in Berlin

20 Jun

Tuerkei_c_BastianFischer

In Kreuzberg demonstrieren Tausende ihre Solidarität mit den Protestierenden auf dem Taksim-Platz in Istanbul gegen die türkische Regierungspolitik. Darunter sind auch viele Frauen. Die sind nicht immer einer Meinung

„Hast du gehört, dass in der Türkei etwas Großes passiert?“, fragte jemand morgens beim Zähneputzen in einem Hostel in Prag. Es war der 1. Juni. Pinar (die ihren Nachnamen nicht im tip lesen möchte) war mit einer Gruppe türkischer Studenten, die ein Austauschsemester in Berlin verbringen, auf Wochenendausflug. Alle schauten sofort im Netz nach, doch in den türkischen Medien stand nichts über „etwas Großes“. Pinar sagt: „Auf Facebook und Twitter sahen wir dann, wie viele Menschen unterwegs waren.“

Demonstranten, die Bäume im zentralen Gezi-Park in Istanbul vor den Bulldozern retten wollten, waren von der Polizei brutal vertrieben worden. Über den Umbau der Stadt unter der Regierung von Recep Tayyip Erdogan – Mega-Flughafenbau, neue Brücke über den Bosporus, Gentrifizierung in großem Stil – gab es längst Unmut. Eine schnelle Folge von heftigerer Repression und größeren Mobilisierungen dagegen brachte beinahe das ganze Land in Bewegung.

Pinar blieb die ganze Nacht online, um die neuesten Infos zu erhalten. Zurück in Berlin, ging die 21-jährige Studentin der internationalen Beziehungen aus Ankara auf die erste Solidaritätsdemonstration, zu der eine andere Austauschstudentin über Facebook aufgerufen hatte. Dort lernte sie auch andere Kommilitonen der Freien Universität Berlin kennen, und eine Woche später kam die erste öffentliche Diskussionsrunde im Foyer vor der FU-Mensa zustande. Dutzende Studierende debattierten dort auf Englisch über die Proteste vom Taksim-Platz – und auch über die Frage, ob man denn von einem „Türkischen Frühling“ sprechen könne.

„Ich bin schockiert“, sagt Pinar, „dass Freunde, die früher nicht mal eine Unterschriftenliste unterschreiben wollten, nun auf Demos gehen und verhaftet und verletzt werden.“ Die Menschen hätten in den letzten Jahren Angst gehabt, die Regierung zu kritisieren. In der Türkei sitzen viele Journalisten und Studenten im Gefängnis. Die aktuelle Bewegung ist in Pinars Augen deswegen nicht rechts oder links, sondern einfach für die Freiheit: um selbst über den eigenen Körper bestimmen, draußen Alkohol trinken, in der Öffentlichkeit küssen zu dürfen.

Doch in Berlin ist es nicht zuletzt die politische Linke, die die Demos vorantreibt. Nach einer Woche hatte ein Bündnis linker Gruppen – türkischer und auch deutscher – eine Solidaritätsdemonstration in Kreuzberg mit über 5 000 Teilnehmern organisiert. Mit dabei: die Sozialarbeiterin Ece Yildirim. „Ich bin in eine politische Bewegung hineingeboren worden“, sagt die 26-Jährige. Ihr Vater, ein Gewerkschafter, flüchtete vor zwölf Jahren nach Berlin, nachdem er wegen politischer Tätigkeit zu 20 Jahren Haft verurteilt worden war („Gründung einer politischen Organisation zur Unruhestiftung“ hieß es offiziell). Ece zog wenige Jahre später nach. Seit fast zehn Jahren lebt sie in der deutschen Hauptstadt. Am Tag, als wir sie treffen, demonstriert sie am Kottbusser Tor.

Als Mitglied der Föderation Demokratischer Arbeitervereine (DIDF auf Türkisch) beteiligt sich Ece Yildirim bei Weitem nicht zum ersten Mal an Aktionen für Menschenrechte in der Türkei. Doch auch sie habe es sehr überrascht, als die Auseinandersetzung um den Gezi-Park plötzlich Millionen auf die Straße trieb, sagt sie. „Das war der letzte Tropfen, der das Fass zum Überlaufen brachte.“ Damit meint sie das Verbot von 1.-Mai-Demonstrationen am Taksim-Platz, den blutigen Kurdistan-Konflikt, den autoritären Kurs von Erdogans AKP-Regierung, von deren Wirtschaftsboom nur wenige profitierten, während Millionen von Hungerlöhnen leben müssten. „Die Leute wollen kein Land, in dem sie nicht mal ein Efes-Bier auf der Straße trinken dürfen“, sagt Ece Yildirim.

Für die Aktivistin handelt es sich bei den Protesten in der Türkei um eine breite Volksbewegung, bei der linke Gruppen einen wichtigen Beitrag leisten: „Die Leute am Taksim-Platz sagen, ohne die Linken wären wir verloren, denn sie haben mehr Erfahrung im Barrikadenkampf gegen die Polizei.“ Deswegen hält Ece Yildirim auch wenig vom Versuch, einen „unpolitischen“ Protest zu veranstalten: „Politik ist nicht wie ein Kleid, das du an- und ausziehen kannst, sondern eher wie deine Haut“, sagt sie.

Alle paar Tage finden nun am Kottbusser Tor große Demonstrationen statt, in der vergangenen Woche wurde dort auch ein Zelt aufgestellt, als Info-Anlaufpunkt. Die Selbstbezeichnung der Istanbuler Demonstranten als „çapulcu“ (Plünderer), in Umkehrung eines Schimpfwortes, das der türkische Ministerpräsident auf sie gemünzt hatte, ist aber auch in Berlin angekommen. Auf Schildern steht: „Ich tschapuliere!“

Doch während alle Aktivisten den breiten Charakter dieser Bewegung betonen, die verschiedene politische, nationale und religiöse Gruppen zusammenbringt, existieren noch tiefere politische – oder eben auch „unpolitische“ – Differenzen. Es ist nämlich keineswegs so, dass der Protest gegen Erdogan die Protestierenden einen würde.

Da ist zum Beispiel Tugba Scherfner. Sie gehört zu einer Gruppe von zehn, vielleicht 15 jungen Berlinern, die sich über Facebook zusammenfanden. „Wir gehören keiner politischen Vereinigung an“, erzählt die 27-jährige Mathematikstudentin, die als Tochter türkischer Einwanderer in Berlin geboren wurde. „Wir haben nicht mal einen richtigen Namen.“ Dann setzt sie zur Bekräftigung hinzu: „Wir fragen nicht in unserer Runde, ob jemand links oder rechts ist.“ Deshalb sind Fahnen oder sonstige Werbung für politische Aktivisten bei der Gruppe unerwünscht. Die Gruppe versteht sich als Unterstützer der Bewegung #occupygezipark – das „gemeinsame Volk“ solle die Regierung zum Rücktritt zwingen.

Die Gruppe hat bisher in Kreuzberg zwei Sitzdemonstrationen organisiert, in der rund 500 Menschen Lieder gegen Erdogan sangen. „Uns geht es um die Ereignisse der letzten zehn Tage, nicht um die der letzten zehn Jahre“, erklärt eine Mitstreiterin. Deswegen rufen sie auch nicht zu den Demonstrationen auf, die Ece Yildirim und die linken Gruppen mitorganisiert haben – zu viele rote Fahnen sozialistischer Organisationen dort.

In Tugba Scherfners Gruppe wird türkisch gesprochen, aber die meisten haben einen besonderen Akzent. „Almançe“ (etwa: „Verdeutschte“) werden sie in der Türkei genannt, aber hier gelten sie allgemein als „Türken“. Dabei erhalten sie die meisten Informationen direkt über soziale Medien auf Türkisch und können nicht alles gleich übersetzen. Aber bei all ihren Aktionen halten sie hin und wieder Reden auf Deutsch, damit die deutschen Protestteilnehmer – „Wir sind die Kartoffelecke“, wie diese selbst scherzhaft sagen – auch etwas mitkriegen.

Derweil steht Ece Yildirim am Kottbusser Tor, wo schon die nächste Solidaritätskundgebung naht. Da bekommt sie eine SMS von ihrem Freund in Istanbul: „Mit vier Augen warte ich auf den Protest heute Abend.“

Die türkische Redewendung kann sie nicht ganz genau ins Deutsche übersetzen, aber ihr Freund ist auf jeden Fall gespannt. Ece, genauso wie Pinar und Tugba, ebenfalls. Zumindest das verbindet sie.

Text: John Riceburg
Fotos: Bastian Fischer

Quelle: http://www.tip-berlin.de/kultur-und-freizeit-stadtleben-und-leute/reportage-taksim-am-kotti-berlin