by Mark Harrison
Whilst trade unions in Britain are on the receiving end of landmark anti-union legislation, the same is true for low paid workers self organising in Germany.
On Saturday members of the Free Workers’ Union (German section of the IWA) staged a demonstration at the Berlin International Film Festival at New Babylon Cinema, to highlight the fact that workers should decide how they organise, not the state. This is in response to the fact that the FAU is now effectively banned as a union.
The FAU, who in 2007 were involved in the occupation and self management of the Biria bicycle factory, sees itself in the tradition of Free Workers’ Union of Germany whose platform was written by Rudolf Rocker and opposed the social chauvinism of the Social Democrats during The First World War. They are currently under observation by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
The New Babylon Cinema located on Rosa Luxemburg Square has a reputation as being ‘leftist and queer friendly’, this is in contrast to the low wages and paternalistic attitude encountered by the workers who run the cinema. Fed up with the conditions they were subjected to, workers decided to organise themselves and joined the FAU, unfortunately this lead to one worker, Jason Kirkpatrick, being fired without notice. After presenting the cinema with a labour contract in June which was agreed to by workers at an employee meeting, the cinema’s management refused to negotiate claiming that the FAU was not qualified to negotiate contracts. By July, the FAU had organised an effective boycott of the cinema and managed to generate national media attention for their cause.
Die Linke and the Trade Union bureaucracy
The New Babylon cinema is partly state owned and receives a subsidy of 300,000 Euros from the Left Party/SPD coalition who run the senate, despite the Left Party calling for a minimum wage of 10 Euros, the lowest paid workers at the New Babylon receive half of that and the projectionists, 8 Euros. Cinema workers were left wondering why the Left Party did not use their influence to improve their situation.
Despite only one worker at the cinema belonging to The German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), in September, supported by the Left Party it announced it would fight for a labour contract at the cinema, without consulting the FAU and with the exclusion of Babylon workers from negotiations. The labour contract signed by DGB demanded less than the one presented by the FAU, although some workers wages have risen by 30%, this is still below the DGB’s standard contract for cinemas.
During the boycott the Left Party organised a film night at The Babylon and condemned the FAU as opportunist, the cinema used this as a pretext to take the FAU to court.
The initial trial on October 7th issued a court order against the boycott. This was followed by a second court ruling on December 11th by Berlin Regional Court which banned the FAU from acting or calling itself a union. The FAU was not informed of the legal action taking place against them and there was no public hearing. The FAU’s appeal hearing had to be moved to a larger room due to the crowd which had turned out in support.
Under German Law, unions must have a certain degree of ‘social might’ before they can sign labour contracts. In court the DGB claimed that as the FAU has no exiting union contracts, it has no ‘social might’. This ruling now effectively prevents workers from self organising and forming decentralised unions, independent from the DGB who have a legal monopoly on trade union activity.
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