1 September 2012     

Solidarity can’t be just in the head

By Hermann Glaser-Baur

Essen, a city in the heart of the “Ruhrgebiet” (the district along the river Ruhr in the west—Germany’s most industrialised area) has seen many workers’ rallies and demonstrations. Last week a march by Polish workers—not so common a sight—drew public attention. They carried flags of the BAU (building and construction workers’) trade union.
     Peter Köster is vice-chairperson of the BAU union in the district. A known communist and member of the Essen Area Committee of the German Communist Party (DKP), he gives an insight into a scandal that beggars belief and shows the nature of the capitalist system. He also puts the term “solidarity” into a very practical context.

Why were the Polish workers out on the streets?
     Essen has provided the stage for yet another scandal—we have experienced numbers of that type in recent years. The majority of these inhumanities never come to public light, and often the victims are neither prepared nor able to fight for their rights. This case was a little different.
     Fifty Polish workers were sent to start demolition work at a building site on the grounds of the university hospital on 8 August. The job had been commissioned by Landschaftsverband Rheinland (LVR) [comparable to the Department of the Environment here] and was to be carried out by a “sub-contractor” from Nürnberg, who brought in the “mobile” workers.
     It’s bad enough that these sharks can shift workers like cattle without breaking the law; in this case the workers didn’t get any pay for four weeks, with the exception of a €190 “sub” after the first week. Their contracts entitled them to weekly wages. After four weeks without pay, the colleagues demanded to be paid in full. Nothing happened. They then refused to go on working, and all fifty were ordered to leave the building site immediately.
     In their misery they contacted “Faire Mobilität,” an advice centre for “mobile” workers (in other words, those who travel the country for work), which is run by the trade union umbrella DGB in Berlin. The staff there informed the BAU Union in Essen.

What could you do?
     Through our union official on the site we made contact with our fellow-workers. First we had to establish what their “contracts” looked like, what exactly had happened on the site, where the very poor law was being broken by the “sub-contractor,” etc.
     They do it all the time: by trying to use “gaps”—and there are plenty of them in the poor employment law for mobile workers—they fill their pockets with extra profit. The BAU Union has been involved in several cases of a similar nature recently.
     In this case we first went to the rogue contractor and to the LVR, who had commissioned the work. The firm shut the door in our face, saying there’d be no pay for strikers. LVR, however, was very keen to solve this in the interests of the workers—mainly to avoid increased media interest and bad press. When we gave them the figures of wages owed to the workers—about €70,000 at this point—it came to light that they had given the law-breaking contractor more than €130,000 as an up-front payment just a few days ago. Whilst pushing on the negotiations, we supported the workers, who all stayed at the site, determined not to go until they were paid in full.

Essen’s uni-hospital is a very busy place in a very busy area. How did the public respond to the protest?
     The people at and near the hospital experienced the protest; there were spontaneous expressions of support and solidarity. Workers’ representatives from both the hospital and LVR came to the Polish colleagues and donated food and drink. I found a young woman from the USA particularly impressive. She had to spend time at the hospital because her daughter was undergoing a complicated operation. When told what was going on, she donated €500 there and then.
     Most important for us, the media took well to our PR campaign and started reporting more and more.
     The situation escalated further when the landlady who supplied board to the workers turned up on the site and told us they were to collect their suitcases: she had been informed that she won’t get any rent for them. As it turned out, the greedy woman had already got a humble €10,000 “up front.”
     So the colleagues weren’t just without any money: they had been thrown onto the street as well. This is the point where solidarity has to turn very practical.
     After short consultations with the Essen tenants’ association [the chairwoman of it is a communist] regarding the possibility of getting short-term flats and rooms, we recommended to the workers that they stay and keep up the protest. They all did!

Did the BAU Union get this really difficult situation sorted out?
     Yes, we did, and we are very proud of that. Anything from provisional overnight quarters to food, a social life for the workers in the union building to the ongoing PR campaign, rallies in the city, was organised by our union members and a few full-time officials.
     Support by the union umbrella DGB was very poor; and—with the exception of the DKP, of course—the political parties in Essen ignored us. A member of parliament and a couple of ex-members of the state parliament of the Left Party were the exceptions there.
     But we did it, and after ten days in makeshift accommodation, and with a life between the union building and the streets, we are just about to win the negotiations—in other words, the fellow-workers are just about to get what is owed to them.
     Many of them will have to go on the road again and find new work.
     All of them, that’s for sure, have thought much about the importance of unions and the term “solidarity” during those days. Solidarity can’t be just an idea in the head: it has to be practical—“go through the hands,” as we say here.

What can be learnt from such a situation?
     For my union the conclusion is to intensify the struggle against these inhumane practices, which has to result in struggle against the bad law and the bad politics.
     We will see some of our colleagues from Poland again, as involved and conscious brothers in this struggle.

After the successful fight in Essen, Peter Köster and his union colleagues got many messages of solidarity and indeed of praise. Unity is the only paper in Ireland I have given this interview to, and I think it would be more than suitable to let our fellow-building workers in Germany know what we think.
     Any message by union members or office-bearers, or by any reader of this, would be nice. Send them to me and I will translate them and get them straight to Peter and the BAU Union in Essen.

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