An interview with Lars Röhm about the fine against the FAU Berlin
In April, the FAU Berlin was charged 200 Euros for referring to itself as a union in its statutes. In December 2009, an injunction had been issued forcing them to remove the word union from all their publications. However the banned word remained in the statutes until mid-March as a change there would have taken several months. The management of the Babylon Mitte Cinema filed for the charges in February 2010. The injunction was also filed for by the same cinema's management during a labor dispute with its employees, which the FAU Berlin was supporting. This is the first time that a workers' association has been banned from calling itself a union in Germany. Lars Röhm has been the secretary of the FAU Berlin since 2009.
Will the fine affect or change the way you work?
Lars Röhm: The amount of the fine was pretty small and was much less than what the Babylon management had asked for. It is, thus, not all that serious and can even be seen as evidence that the court is unsure of itself.
All in all, though, the injunction will of course affect our work considerably as long as it remains in effect. A union has certain rights in Germany--unobstructed access to the workplace, participation in works meetings and the right to inform workers on a blackboard--that are actually meant to safeguard the work of workers' associations. Members aren't recruited by simply distributing membership form but by showing presence at their place of work. That's why we see this verdict as an unconstitutional encroachment on the freedom of association, which is a basic right. The verdict didn't cause an international uproar for nothing.
You stopped referring to yourselves as a union publicly after the injunction. You were charged because it wasn't erased from all texts quickly enough. Will you continue to stay the course and respect the ban?
Yes, we decided collectively to respect the ban at present and will continue to do so in the future. There is the very real possibility that the Babylon Mitte's management wanted us to act like stubborn children, so they could press for horrendous charges to shut us up. Instead, we will do everything to eliminate this objectionable verdict. Even if the word union can be taken away from us, no court can take away our self-confidence and dignity.
The FAU Berlin has appealed the ban; the case will be heard a Berlin's Higher Regional Court on June 10th. If the verdict is confirmed, will you continue to do work that one could describe as "union" work--will it even be possible?
It is possible, albeit under considerably difficult circumstances. We will, nevertheless, continue. We will even go on the offensive. In a way, the verdicts have motivated us. As aggravating as they may be, they show that we are on the right track when it comes to bringing about genuine changes. A serious alternative to established unions would be a menace and some will try to stop it. This is even more true in this time of crisis.
Why was the FAU even banned from calling itself a union?
The official reason suggests that the FAU Berlin was fraudulently labeling itself a union. Whereby, the Babylon's management argued that this is damaging to business. The court went even further, arguing that the employees could be misled. Both reasons are completely absurd if you ask me.
They claim that the normal German citizen sees unions as nothing more than an association which concludes collective agreements. As the FAU Berlin has been forbidden from doing this, they can thus not be a union.
But even if you were to accept this argument, the verdict is still very problematic legally in my opinion. It's based on a verdict by the Federal Labor Court from 1977(!), which equates union status with the ability to conclude collective agreements. However, the FAU Berlin was told by courts that they could not conclude collective agreements as they have never concluded a collective agreement. Logic seems to be in extremely short supply, and I think this is highly questionable legally. This is something you would expect from a banana republic and not a constitutional state.
The story reminds me of a comment by an American during the McCarthy era that suggests that every citizen should go to jail pro forma once they turn 18 to make sure they become responsible members of society.