Erschienen in: Verteilzeitung Mai 2016
„The boss could not handle it!“
A portrait of FAU Berlins Foreigners‘ Section
Due to language problems, residence permit status and ignorance of German labour rights, foreign workers are generally more vulnerable to capitalist exploitation. But in Berlin several bosses had to learn: There is that nasty union you shouldn‘t mess with! We spoke to Lindsay, a member of the Foreigners‘ Section of FAU Berlin.
Lindsay, please introduce yourself.
I‘m from Seattle in the USA. I‘m a proofreader and copywriter by profession and actual occupation. I‘ve been in Berlin nearly a year.
You are part of the notorious Foreigners‘ Section (FS) of FAU Berlin. What is that section about? Why do you organize as foreigners?
The FS is a section in FAU Berlin where non-German-speaking workers can organise and fight their work struggles. It was founded around 5 years ago now, I believe. Mainly, it’s a place that allows foreign workers to be active, fighting syndicalists in Germany. The FS also gets to share a lot of knowledge and experience about how it is to be working as a foreigner in Berlin.
Your section has been involved in various struggles and is still so. What is the „typical workplace conflict“ you have? What are the most common problems foreign workers face in Berlin?
Since I’ve been in FAU, we’ve primarily had wage theft cases and arbitrary firings within the gastronomy section, which means we’ve been struggling a lot for single members rather than organising entire workplaces. This, I think, is typical because FS members are for the most part in the precariat of the working class: we often bounce from job to job, even if we’re in the same industry. This makes organising at one workplace very difficult. But we are now trying to come up with strategies around organising in precarious workplaces and will be focusing a lot more on education – how to organise – in the next year.
What makes you win so many cases, what is the concept of your success?
If you mean conflict with the restaurant „Cancun“, then I’d say we were very aggressive – loud at the picket, lots of direct action – and the boss in this case could not handle it and we didn’t need a court: He paid our member in front of the camera at the rally outside the restaurant. As for the other ones, ok – I'll consider our 80 page injunction from another Berlin restaurant a kind of success since it means we really pissed them off. But, no win on that one yet. We will bring that injunction to court.
I think, the recent success we had, comes from a combination of the small or medium size of the companies we are fighting, from the help FS working groups gets from the German-speaking FAU members and from FS’ use of direct action; that is, FS working groups are thinking about how to hit the boss economically, and how to coerce that boss into doing what we want, and then the actions are prepared with the help from German-speakers, which is essential to FS success. The actions themselves are louder and more frequent, we have more demand deliveries, phone/email zaps, rallies, and other “creative” actions. Of course, as a small syndicalist union, we see direct action as part of the recipe for success.
Furthermore, these smaller struggles for one member have in fact given more of our membership practical fighting experience and a chance to learn union skills. Meaning that while our membership in FS is smaller than it was in the Mall of Shame days (a conflict that started in summer 2014 and lasts till now), nearly all of the active members are now involved in working groups and organising struggles themselves.
It's often said that Germany has a pretty underdeveloped strike and combat culture. What is your point of view on that?
I honestly don’t know much about this. If you mean Germans are quieter and less combative generally in the labour movement as compared to say, the French, then yea, this is obvious. However, compared to the American labour movement, Germans are downright quarrelsome.
The FS unites workers from around ten different countries. So there must be a vivid mix of combat cultures and experiences. Could you give an example of this advantage?
Yea, we have people primarily from all over Europe and the US. I know that Germans are quieter than the southern Europeans at actions and drink less beer than the French at actions. At a strike in Paris they had a special van for beer and wine that drove along with the march! Many in FS agree now that it’s important to be more animated, and they take the street presence at actions as a real fighting opportunity.
Berlin is often considered as something like a melting pot of the radical left. Nevertheless most lefties don’t fight and organize themselves as wage labourers. Why is that?
Well, I think the left in Berlin is focused on building defensive communities – squats, coops, etc. In general, they have very little serious orientation towards fighting offensively in a strategic manner. But, it would be deceitful to say that the modern labour movements, including ourselves, aren't somewhat responsible for this. Labour used to have a much larger “culture” surrounding it. So, perhaps as we start to grow up our culture again, we'll have more success with getting the left interested in labour again.
FAU Berlin recently became the target of various injunctions and other repression. How can a union defend itself against the bosses and their state? And did you get any attention and solidarity of the left movement?
We didn’t get much solidarity from the left on this but perhaps that’s because we failed to publicise it enough. These injunctions are nasty – particularly for a small union like ours which relies so much on being loud and annoying to get things done. Basically, if the boss has enough money, they go and buy the union’s silence from the court, and we are, effectively, guilty until proven innocent. I’d say, that someday when FAU has more resources, we’ll need to challenge the law which allows these injunctions to exist. The IWW (an international syndicalist union) helped create free speech in the US through direct action and appealing the supreme courts in the Free Speech Fights of the early 20th century. I imagine the working class in Germany will have to do something similar someday if we want our rights to grow.
What do you like at FAU and what has to get improved?
I like a lot about FAU, like the fact I can take a beer on credit at the union hall when I’m low on cash. I like that we have a union hall, with books and people and a projector there. All that. It’s a little community of people who are nice and polite but very nasty and unpleasant to bosses. This is what a syndicate should be.
Aside from problems of education – sharing organising skills and knowledge – I already mentioned, I don’t think I’d change anything right now. I think we’re on our way to being much better already; people are doing things, thinking and discussing new ideas, and are fighting. As long as we have that, we’re good, I think.
What is FS’ future goal?
The task now for FS is to combine all our fighting experiences with organising knowledge so that we have several workers fighting for themselves at one job, instead of only these solidarity cases with workers who are no longer working at the workplace. Also, we need more cultural and social activities like film nights, etc. because these are fun but also because FS has to work a little more to keep ourselves bonded because we have a lot of cultures smashed together, which makes miscommunication and serious disagreement more likely to happen.
The interview was conducted by Jonas
Contact info for the section
Open meeting: Every 4th Tuesday of the month, 19:30.
Location: FAU office, Grüntaler Str. 24.