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Worker Struggles - a personal perspective

by Jeffersonian Democrat Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 12:31:48 PM EST

Daneel [on dKos; DoDo on ET] invited me to diary this here from a comment I made on Jerome's diary Don't Spite the God of Economic Reform over at the Big Orange's edition.

What follows is a case example of working conditions you don't expect in a European country that is supposed to be stiffled by socialistic regulation, maybe not even in an Anglo-Saxon country with a supposedly dynamic and flexible workforce. And of collective fight-back. Is this our future?

Promoted with slight edit by DoDo


First off, let me say that I am a long time member here and I lurk a lot.  I don't comment much here because, as an American in Germany, I really do not know enough on the European issues and most here have that covered far beyond what I could add.  So I lurk and learn and it has been invaluable especially for the economic analyses in (mostly) layman's terms from Jerome and NBBBrooks; Bonddad, gjohnsits, and New Deal Democrat over at Kos.  That is were my modest knowledge of the economic situation comes from.

Ok, my point - or rather report.

My fiancee and I live in Menden, Sauerland, in NRW Germany.  A small but mostly pleasant town.  She works at a metal-work factory, which makes parts for various products in various industries, in Lendringsen.  Lendringsen is a neighboring town about 15 minutes away by bus.

In November, new management came in and started making changes.  Suddenly, chit-chat on the floor became a fireable offense.  No Talking!  The the shifts changed to longer hours.  Instead of the early shift beginning at 6AM, it began at 04:30, late shift until 02:00.

A side effect of this was that public transportation does not run during these hours in small towns.  We don't own a car, too poor at the moment.  But one reason I love Europe is that, outside of this, you really don't need one as everything of necessity is within walking and biking distance as well as buses or trains.

So then she had to carpool to work, ok.  But it was the little things: foam ear plugs disappeared, we had to buy our own.  Saturday shifts, which were always voluntary for those wishing to work overtime, remained officially voluntary but became a tool of not "team playing" and became an unvoiced threat of lay-off if you didn't team play.

I asked my fiancee why didn't the workers organize and protest?  She explained that a good proportion of workers (like she herself was) are temporary workers.  Everyone is afraid that protesting would lead to firing since there are so many unemployed workers who would fill their positions.  I say scare tactics!

What happened is that the women workers haphazardly resisted - all of them.  They just quit coming in on Saturdays.  The management asked why and they replied that they also had child and household duties at home.

Surprisingly for me, it worked.  Things returned to normal, back to 8 hour shifts at normal times, easing of draconian measures on the factory floor, and of course, no Christmas bonus again this year.  Back to normal, almost, we are still buying ear-protection.

So I got to see solidarity in action and I only can imagine what would happen if they got a union involved. So that is what is happening in our small part of Germany, perhaps this small report adds to the bigger policy pictures and issues of the EU and encroaching Anglo-Saxon Neo-Liberalism on the continent

As a sidenote, one of the temps was a dual US-German.  She worked in factories and FedEx in Alabama.  Surprisingly, she stated that worker protections were better in the US, one can't even get on the floor without safety glasses, for example.  I suspect that has more to do with the ease of litigation in the US than here.  It is easier to sue a company there as I understand it.

Nevertheless, I think I am staying here.  We have a child on the way now that is due July 30th (if a boy, we're thinking first and middle names of Tristan Orestes; if a girl we are thinking Harmonie but I really like Iphigenie).  I currently live on my Veterans Administration disability compensation that is paid in dollars, so that hurts, but I can not yet work until we are married.  I've applied to transfer from my faculty to a doctorate program at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena and waiting to here about that.  My liberal but pretty much mainstream mother recently wrote to me:

...my unsolicited opinion is that you should stay in Germany and get married.  Health insurance, the economy and school seem like "right decision" thinking to me. Its weird right now, I am hoping for political change but who knows what will happen.

and regarding her house:

...I certainly wasn't dumb enough to fall for the variable intrerest rate, we should be just fine.

I think I will take my mother's unsolicited advice.  Is there a welcome wagon for new European citizens?

Display:
Health care problems in the US, but Nicole warns me it is coming here too.  But I just can't imagine Europeans would stand for it, I just can't.

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"
by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 05:42:04 AM EST
the trouble is that we often don't get a choice. In the UK all political parties buy into the "reforming" nonsense, the difference between them being the extent and speed with which they'll stick it on you. So you can't vote them out and there is no point in protesting because the frame is about "reform".

There is also a genuine problem of democratic accountability, governments only want to know what you think once every 4 or 5 years. In between time the attitude is STFU and let the professionals get on with it. And then, you have a choice between wreckage by blue or ruin by red. Some choice eh ?

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 11:38:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm sure I've posted before the 1980's Grafitti

National elections XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Local elections     xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Here is your lifetimes supply of democracy, please do not steal the pencil.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 11:41:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, that's what it comes down to.

both parties have simply sold themselves to corporate interests. The Labour party, never as responsive as it like to think, has now completely divorced itself from the membership (members can now be arrested under terrorist offences for heckling MPs). And is then shocked to discover the membership are leaving in droves

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 12:30:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A welcome indeed. But to make yourself at home go to the bar and drink lots of good german beer. That should put anyone in a good mood.

And come to our irregular meetups too. don't be shy. The main one is in Paris in summer, but that's up to JaP as to when it is.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 11:40:31 AM EST
I was thinking about Paris, we are about due for a vacation.  On the other hand, other things a "due" in the summer as well.  Depends on timing and funds, but thanks for the invite.

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"
by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 11:43:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I appreciate the due date may not be convenient. There are german meets now and again.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 12:31:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Welcome Jefferson Democrat!

I really do not know enough on the European issues and most here have that covered far beyond what I could add.

Ah, but you do.  I'd be most interested in your thoughts as an American expat living in Germany.  It may come to that for some of us still on the left side of the pond.

What happened is that the women workers haphazardly resisted - all of them.  They just quit coming in on Saturdays.  The management asked why and they replied that they also had child and household duties at home.

IWW/CIO tactics!  I LOVE it!!

The truth is: management can't fire everyone on the factory floor all at the same time.  What they can (will?) do is selective firing of the 'agitators' and a slow replacement of the 'radicals' in the workforce as their contracts end.  Management has already demonstrated they are scumbags.  Expect them to keep pushing.

Will someone, anyone, please go to the local union hall and slap the union leaders seven ways from silly?  WTF do those morons think they're about?  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 02:23:08 PM EST
IWW/CIO tactics!  I LOVE it!!

The truth is: management can't fire everyone on the factory floor all at the same time.  What they can (will?) do is selective firing of the 'agitators' and a slow replacement of the 'radicals' in the workforce as their contracts end.  Management has already demonstrated they are scumbags.  Expect them to keep pushing.

I've never been in a union, but I've been involved in something similiar at my old work.  

I worked in a call center that dealt with consumer medical devices.  They kept pressuring us to cut down our talk time (time on the phone with customers) and after call work (the amount of time spent filling forms on the computer for a call).  We were supposed to have an average talk time of 8 minutes, and and after call work of 2 minutes at the begining. We dealt with sick people, if we made mistakes in the technical assistance rendered people could die. It was not an easy job.  

Then the number of calls nearly tripled in a period of a few months, and people started dropping like flies (due to the nature of the condition our products treated, I hope this is only a commentary on labor relations, but I think that management's incompetence may have gotten "the best" of a few clients along the way as well.)  So management decided that rather than hire more agents, or do anything in recognition that we were being asked to do more than three times as much work with the same staff decided to cut our talk time to 7 minutes and our after call work to 1 minute.  Agents couldn't keep up, and the company went through and started firing people for poor metrics.

So we retaliated the only way we could.   We were "empowered" to send free product to customers, and we did.  An agent might handle 40-50 calls in an 8 hour shift, and on maybe 1/3rd of those sending out free product (at $50-100 per call) was an option.  Normally, we'd send out maybe 3-4 things of free product in a day. Well when they started cutting down our talk time and aftercall work, we started sending out free product on every call we could.

We had just under 200 agents, and we went from sending out less than a million USD in free product in a month to more than 10 million USD in a month after they started the firing.  Needless to say they caught on (after the second month), and suddenly they announced that call metrics being upped to the 10 minutes talk time, and 5 minutes after call work.  

Problem was that by this time, they'd lost 30-40 workers out of 200, and it took them 2 months to bring a class of 24 onto the floor.  Near the end, we were actively talking during lunchs (I went outside to eat) about forming a union.  If we had the company would have been fucked.  Because in the medical device industry you have to have a call center like the one I worked in to sell your product in the US.  If we had formed a union, and went on strike, they would have not been able to sell their products in the US (this was a large, slightly evil, Swiss firm, though our division was German) and would have been losing hundreds millions of dollars each week we were out.  

I think that call centers in the pharmaceutical industry are ripe for unionization for that reason.  The company thinks that they can fuck over the people that make it legal to sell their products.  It's a gigantic bottleneck, that could be used to unionize the sector.  And if the union doing the deed insisted on wage increases while keeping product prices steady (like Walter Reuther and the American UAW did in the 1947 strike against GM) they could win hundreds of thousands of new members, and change the way that the pharma/medical device sector works.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 02:52:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've seen this happen in the computer industry. fortunately never on a site where I was working, but I have seen places like it and the standard of support is abysmal and ultimately counter-productive. But you can't tell accountants and management gurus nothing.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 03:11:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good for you.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 01:20:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
perhaps a welcome back from lurking, my id has only two digits, lol.

I think the union problem may have something to do with a great majority of workers are temps from a temp agency.  That seems to be a growing trend.

But really, I don't know, I am still trying to get a feel on rules and regulations and laws over here.  (whaddaya mean I can't vacuum or wash my clothes on Sundays and holidays?????, for example)

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"

by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 02:53:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So it is, by cracky.

The obvious thing to do is for you to welcome me to ET. (LOL)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 01:24:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For clarity, that Daneel is me (different username on dKos and ET).

What your story well demonstrates is that with the march of neoliberalism, free-market USA - socialistic EU is increasingly only a perception and bizarrely, that perception is enough for America-admiring neolibs to push things even further down the slope here when we 'reach' US level. Sad, sad.

BTW, I do remember that before you went lurking, you spoke about joining the local Left Party or something. If you did so, or at least have some connections to them, maybe telling them about this factory would make sense.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 04:40:32 PM EST
Thanks Dodo, I followed you suggestion obviously.

Yes, I am a card carrying member of Die Linke.  Buuuuuut, my better half said stay out of it and didn't want me making waves with the Iserlohn folks.  But, yes, I thought of that right away.

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"

by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 04:55:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
interestingly, shortly before I moved here, Americans bought the local Groh factory.  I think they make bathroom fixtures and the like.  I understand that subsequently 200 workers lost their jobs, which is quite a hit for around here.  I think it is part of the reason we have a lot of unemployed workers and a large pool to draw from if the employed workers get too "uppidy".

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"
by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Thu Dec 27th, 2007 at 05:00:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What your story well demonstrates is that with the march of neoliberalism, free-market USA - socialistic EU is increasingly only a perception

No, DoDo, this illustrates the fact that, in many companies, there is a permanent tension between the will of the management to improve the productivity and the employees' demand for acceptable working conditions. When the management is stupid enough to try to impose this by force (or feels it is in a position to do so), it leads to conflict.

I started working in 1971 as a production operator (I was manufacturing steel parts on a lathe) and we already faced that kind of situation: we were working by the piece and the management always tried to diminish the production time standards and we had to cheat with the guys measuring the production time in order to maintain our bonuses.

Later on, in 1972, I was working on a production line and the management decided to increase the production rate. When the director came to the workshop, we stopped working and surrounded him to explain we didn't accept it and said we wouldn't let him go unless he called off his decision. It worked and we even obtained to get the normal pay notwithstanding the hours lost due to the strike.

So there's nothing new and working conditions were not that rosy in the past. And that means that maintaining acceptable working and living conditions is a permanent struggle.

 

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 05:45:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But did you have a union back then? And extended worktimes beyond official norm?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 06:55:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There were unions, but the strike and "confinement" of the manager were spontaneous and the unions' representatives came at the end to negotiate. This kind of spontaneous movement was not uncommon.

I must add that it took place at a time when unemployment was low, so the power balance between workers and employers was not the same. In fact, I was, by choice, a temporary worker and I got fired for having led the strike, but I wasn't worried because I knew I could easily find a new job, which happened within a week.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Sat Dec 29th, 2007 at 04:54:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is there a union for that workplace?  I'm not too familiar with German unions.  It does go to show how effective it can be when all the little people make a stand together.  But you need everyone to be involved to have the impact.  

Rights for temps are an issue in the UK also and employers are making more and more use of temps in order to save money and to legally sack those who are potential troublemakers.

A union presence would be ideal here (although I am assuming that the same rights exist in Germany that protect union members and reps from unfavourable treatment or victimisation).  In the UK, where workplaces are unionised it can be very effective when unions and management work together to improve conditions.  It isn't always about strikes and conflict.

It's ridiculous how short sighted management can be when they try to cut costs or introduce changes.  At the end of the day they are dealing with real people, real impacts on lives.  Stupid shifts, lack of attention to health and safety, and a disregard for staff will cause problems and costs for the employer in the long run.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 12:49:46 PM EST
What will the future of this company be and will your wife be there when it happens?

Cheaper labor and outsourcing is the trend all over. Not so long ago 1,000 some odd jobs left a small Swedish town when Electrolux left. They had just had a big architectural competition trying to impress with these big grand ideas including people migrating to this little place- so they wanted development, alot of it, and housing, maybe 1,000k more units.

Perhaps it was sort of daring, but we predicted that this company was going to leave, and to start any development was a joke. We instead asked them to focus on the city center, to keep money there.

During the waiting period between submittal and decision, they left. Guess it's about time that I check on them, I haven't looked back.

At any rate, this is probably the going rate, there was even a recent decision by the EU court that unions can not block cheaper labor from other countries to work for less- this undermines Swedish labor. Hopefully an appeal will be in their favor, otherwise, it'll be sad.

by borkitekt on Fri Dec 28th, 2007 at 04:32:23 PM EST
I don't know what the future of this firm is.  But I always believed a happy worker is a productive worker and your most valuable capital to reinvest in for the growth and prosperity of a company.

Workers, I understand, are not happy there nor to they really support one another.  I do not believe there is a union there.

As to the future, I am sitting with fingers crossed waiting to hear back from FSU at Jena.  BTW, she did tell me, from your question over at Kos, that she gets 70-80 % of her check and 18 months maternity leave, but it is from the state I believe.  I am worried about Jena, though, the work their seems to be very hi-tech industry in optics and the like.  Zeiss is one of the big companies there.

So, I am trying to convince her to go to night school and get her Arbitur and look at attending the Uni.  She has expressed an interest in psycho-therapy and related women's issues.

But here is one of my biggest criticisms of Germany.  In the US people change careers or go to college later in life and if you have been out of school for a while, you do not have to take SATs, you just go (but pay!)

Here, at least in Germany, you have to decide which of the three types of high school your kid goes to at around age 9 and then they are locked in that societal class.  They make it very difficult by making one go back and get the Gymnasium equivalent of high school before entering the Uni.  Then there is the age discrimination if you are an older student (seems many student benefits are based on age rather than a student financial situation).  Not to mention age discrimination when entering another field later in life.  In this sense, then, there is a kernel of truth to the US as "the land of opportunity".  And that rant may be a future diary.

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"

by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Sat Dec 29th, 2007 at 04:00:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have to agree with you: in the US it is much easier to reinvent oneself.

This video was made by Sarah Teather MP of North West London. There is a hopeful message in it, but also all the failings of the system are highlighted. The plumber is a case in point - he succeeded despite the prejudices in the system.



We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Dec 29th, 2007 at 05:39:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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