We're under constant pressure. Capitalism needs labor, cheap labor that works long hours, in order to maximize profit. We feel it day in and day out. This pressure leads to downsizing; fewer workers are doing more. At the same time "atypical" employment is on the rise: temps, short-term contracts, freelancers, part-timers and workfare.
Precarious work means insecurity, hire and fire, overtime, no vacations, on-call, low-pay, no sick pay, and fear of losing your job. For those lucky enough to have a "normal" job, fear of temporary work and welfare lead them to keep quiet until it's too late. The results are powerlessness and isolation.
We can no longer afford to remain silent. Whether you (still) have a secure job or work precariously, as long as you remain inactive the pressure will increase. We have to organize in our workplace and beyond in order to resist. When workers unite it's called a union.
A Bleak Union Landscape
As opposed to other European countries, where pluralistic and militant union landscapes exist, there isn't much of a choice when it comes to unions in Germany.
There's the DGB: a big union that sees itself as a service provider, where workers mostly take part vicariously and which is so large that those in small companies often fall by the way side. Then there are various forms of "yellow" unions, organizations that the bosses control. For good reason, these are often prevented from signing contracts by the courts because of their links to big business. The few trade unions that have manage to get a foothold in Germany are those of key professions, such as railway engineers, pilots and doctors. Unions in individual companies aren't allowed, a union must have a structure that goes beyond the company.
Yet, there is the "other union", the Free Workers' Union (FAU). It's a grassroots union where the members decide how and when to handle labor disputes, and where all workers are welcome regardless of their profession. By its very nature as an anarcho-syndicalist union, it cannot act in the boss's interest as it strives for a classless society and the abolition of the wage system. The advantages of this form of organization are obvious if you look the successes of similar European unions—some of which are part the International Workers' Association along with the FAU. Unfortunately the FAU has had a hard time in Germany due to a culture which favors centralist unions.
The Babylon Conflict and its Consequences
November 2008. Workers at Berlin's Babylon Mitte cinema begin a fight against precarious conditions, low pay and a miserable working atmosphere, which exist despite the fact that the cinema receives hundreds of thousands in government funding. The employees form a work council. This is one of the few instruments which employees here have—outside of unions—to force bosses to respect labor law. However, unions are indispensable when it comes to negotiating pay raises and taking collective action. After calls to ver.di—the branch of the DGB responsible for cinema workers—remain unanswered, they turn to the FAU Berlin.
An FAU group is established in the Babylon in January 2009. Together with the majority of the Babylon's employees they present a contract proposal to management in June 2009. Management, however, refuses to negotiate; the FAU Berlin starts job action and calls for a boycott, which is banned by the Berlin Labor Court in October 2009. The pressure works, though: The Berlin Senate approved even more funding and ver.di appears on the scene and signs a contract with management, without consulting staff.
January 2010. After being prevented from taking job action, the FAU Berlin is order to stop calling itself a union or grassroots union by the Berlin Regional Court. The Babylon management, their lawyers and the judiciary team up, and their definition of what a union is prevails over that of the workers. The FAU Berlin faces fines up to 250,000 Euro or 6 months imprisonment if they call themselves a union.
The Workers Decide
We bear witness to the decade-long retreat of established unions and the catastrophic helplessness of workers in Germany and indeed the world. With reciprocity and solidarity, we can overcome this. We also need more democracy within the workplace and without. If emancipatory and grassroots change is what we want for society, then we need the corresponding unions. Who better to rectify a cruddy situation than those affected by it?
To this end, the fact that the FAU Berlin is precluded from workplace activity is a bitter consequence of this ruling. Moreover, if this precedence is left to stand, other unions working at a grassroots level in Germany could face similar hindrances. Last but not least, this decision is an attempt to discredit a movement, to ban it from realms of labor struggle and cast it in the light of an agitprop group.
On June 10th, 2010, Berlin's Higher Regional Court will decide if the FAU Berlin may once more call itself a union. Regardless of the courts decision, the FAU Berlin will continue to act in the interest of workers. The question is whether this court will prove as arrogant as the lower court and prevent the FAU Berlin from calling itself what it is: the workers united.
FAU Berlin Anti-Prohibition Team
For details, the latest information and ideas how you can help, please visit www.fau.org/verbot/en