By Tom Wetzel
A struggle by the workers at the New Babylon Cinema in Berlin – a relatively small firm – has now blown up into a fight with much larger legal consequences for German workers. A December 11, 2009 court edict in Berlin now poses some serious questions: Will German workers have the legal right to a union of their own choosing? Will they have the legal right to form grassroots alternative unions?
For some time now a large proportion of the workers at the New Babylon Cinema (Neue Babylon GmbH) have been working together as a grassroots union as a part of the Freie Arbeiterinnen und Arbeiter Union (Free Workers Union – FAU). Back in February 2009 the workers at the cinema organized in FAU picketed the cinema for higher wages. Wages at the cinema are abysmally low. Since June they have been engaged in a struggle with the cinema’s management to obtain a labor contract.
As part of this struggle the FAU mounted a boycott of the cinema. This boycott and worker struggle has been widely covered in the media. The FAU struggle has been built on the direct participation of the workers – something that is rarely seen in Germany. Workers have participated in developing innovative demands and methods of struggle.
However, on December 11, the Berlin Regional Court (Landgericht Berlin) banned the Freie Arbeterinnen und Arbeiter Union (Free Workers Union) from acting as a union. The court even banned the FAU from calling itself a union. Moreover, this court edict was issued without holding a public hearing and without even notifying the FAU of a legal action against them. This type of secretive court action is called a “star chamber” proceeding in the Anglo-American legal tradition…and is regarded as an abuse of legal authority.
New Babylon Cinema receives funding from the government in Berlin which is controlled by a coalition of Die Linke and the Social Democratic Party. Apparently a deal was worked out between New Babylon management, their political friends, and the large national union ver.di – part of the bureaucratic German Trade Union Federation (DGB)…known for its “partnership” deals with management and corporatist participation on boards of directors of German companies. With virtually no support among staff at New Babyon, and without notifying the workers, ver.di entered the fray to negotiate a sweetheart deal with the New Babylon management. In September Die Linke – a socialist political party in Germany – intervened on behalf of this dirty deal, distributing leaflets claiming that ver.di was “mediating” the dispute.
The workers at the cinema were surprised by this action…and were excluded from any participation in the negotiations. If this kind of action stands, it means the bosses can choose which union its employees belong to and what it looks like.
In court Babylon Cinema’s lawyers attacked the FAU on the grounds that its lack of existing union contracts shows it has no ability to enter into contracts. This is important because, under German labor law, no organization can legally take collective action if it doesn’t have the ability to negotiate a contract. On two occasions the Berlin FAU has been threatened with 250,000 euros fine or jail sentences.
Management’s argument, if upheld, presents a Catch-22 for German workers. If not already being a union with contracts shows an organization can’t be a union, how could German workers have the right to form independent unions or new autonomous labor organizations? If this holds up, it amounts to granting a legal union monopoly to DGB.
Rank and file disenchantment with the DBG has grown in recent years. The ver.di union has already stated that they see the FAU as a threat and want to nip it in the bud. The Berlin court ruling has far-reaching implications. There has been little tradition of militant or grassroots unionism in Germany since the Nazis came to power in 1933. Within the official DGB, decentralization (local autonomy) and worker self-organization are not encouraged. Thus the New Babylon Cinema struggle is important in that the freedom of German workers to form autonomous labor organizations — grassroots organizations they control – is at stake here.
Some years back I spent some time in the Rhine region (my father’s ancestors were from that part of Germany) and had an opportunity to talk with members of the Koeln and Frankfurt am Main branches of the FAU. This left me with an impression of a well-organized group with serious and committed activists.
The FAU itself is roughly the German equivalent of the American IWW. The FAU derives from a tradition that goes back to the decentralist unions of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which separated from the main centralist labor federation (predecessor of the present DGB) over the issue of local autonomy. After World War 1, the autonomous unions came together to form the Freie Arbeiter Union Deutchlands (FAUD). With the collapse of the German monarchy, revolution was in the air. The FAUD was part of the radical grassroots unionism in Germany in those years, growing to 200,000 members. Famous German anarcho-syndicalists like Rudolph Rocker and Augustin Souchy participated in the FAUD in the years after World War 1.
The FAUD was banned after the Nazis came to power in 1933, and many of its members ended up in concentration camps. Kersten, my Frankfurt FAU contact, told me that during World War 2, the German SS rounded up thousands of FAUD members and formed them into an armed battalion and stuck them out on the eastern front, facing the Red Army. An SS division was behind them, armed with machine guns. The FAUD people were told, “You fight the Russians or we kill you.” Few FAUD members survived to tell about that.
In the late ’70s a new generation of German anarcho-syndicalists decided to rebuild the FAU. In more recent years the FAU has gradually grown to more than 300 members and has finally reached a stage where it has been able to organize a number of worker union groups in some workplaces.
If the FAU is banned now, this will be the third time the syndicalists have been banned in Germany. They were banned in 1914 due to their opposition to the German war effort, and again by the Nazis in 1933. However, the FAU believes that the court order can be overturned, if there is sufficient public outcry and solidarity. They are suggesting actions such as protests at German embassies or consulates, sending protest letters to German embassies, and sending protest faxes to the German court.
The FAU has set up a webpage in English for information on how to contact German diplomatic embassies and the management of New Babylon Cinema, to express opposition to the banning of FAU and support for the right of the New Babylon Cinema employees to a union of their own choosing. The FAU also has an article in English explaining their struggle.
Written December 10, 2009