Wildcat on the workers of Bike Systems in Germany who occupied their factory and resumed production when their plant was scheduled for closure.
Impressions from the occupied factory hall in Nordhausen
How long will the 'bureaucratic course' last?
The news was posted on Labornet at the end of July: a bicycle factory has been occupied in Nordhausen (Thüringen, east of Germany). On their own accord the entire permanent work-force (125 workers) organise the day-and-night occupation of their company which is threatened with immediate closure. They want to fight against being dismissed without a Sozialplan (a contract normally negotiated by the union: e.g. dismissed workers get severance pay or a guaranteed one year employment in a qualification scheme). The news on Labornet already had links to seven newspaper articles which report about the dedication of the workers to act against the plans of their profit-hungry (still) employer. They will stay together like a family, if necessary till Christmas. "Wow", we thought and started our first trip to the factory at the beginning of August.
The plant is easy to find: We only have to turn into Freiherr-von-Stein Street when we hear the honking of passing cars and the whistles of the occupiers. They stand or sit around on the pavement, they have attached banners at the fence. Warm welcome, good atmosphere, several people immediately come to say hello to us, offer cake and coffee ("the cake has been offered to us as an act of solidarity by a collective from Hamburg").
Until recently there have been three different bike factories in the region: the Mitteldeutsche Fahrradwerke (Mifa) in Sagerhausen (422 workers), the Sachsen Zweirad in Neukirch (240 workers) and the very same Bike Systems in Nordhausen. In 2000 Bike Systems was threatened with bankruptcy for the first time. Back then the BIRIA Sachsen bought the company and integrated it in close cooperation with its plant Sachsen Zweirad in Neukirch. The purchasing department, service department and the dispatch were re-located from Nordhausen and over two-thirds of the former 400 workers disappeared. Only the production department and its 125 workers remained. "At that point the hiring of temp workers started", a Bike Systems worker tells us. During the main season between January and June up to 160 temp workers hired by Mifa have been employed in Nordhausen. In December 2005 the plants in Neukirch and Nordhausen were taken over by the US-investor Lone Star. One year after the takeover the Sachsen Zweirad factory in Neukirch was closed and all 240 employees were dismissed with a Sozialplan (see above). The severance pay was 21 Euros per one year of employment with the company (after 20 years you get only 420 Euros!). Lone Star sold the bike orders of Sachsen Zweirad for a 25 per cent company share to Mifa which up to that point had been the main competitor of Bike Systems. During the last months Bike Systems had no clients of its own anymore, they only produced for orders from Mifa. The workers received a reduced basic wage, they worked at weekends and on bank holidays and their holiday and Christmas pay was cut completely.
On the 20th of June 2007 a shock hit the remaining 125 workers: despite all the concessions made by the workers Lone Star will close the plant in Nordhausen, as well. The production was supposed to run for another ten days, in order to finish the final orders, after that negotiations over a Sozialplan would start. Till 30th of June the workers assembled the last bikes, then they themselves dismantled the assembly lines and emptied the storage halls - expecting an acceptable Sozialplan. They did not wake up to reality before 10th of July, when it became clear that Lone Star will neither offer severance pay nor stick to the legal notice period for dismissals.
"For years we accepted any deterioration and now all 125 people occupy the factory together. The idea came up on a company assembly and everyone thought that it was good." The occupation was formally declared as a permanent company assembly (works council members have the legal right to call for such assemblies) - initially until the 30th of August.
Immediately after the company closure became known the main Mifa manager came to the plant and tried to head-hunt 60 to 90 people: he offered permanent contracts and the same wages as at Bike Systems. But only three people took the offer and thereby lost their claims concerning Lone Star. At Mifa workers earn even less, they work 40 instead of 38 hours like at Bike Systems and they get 24 days annual holiday instead of 30. If you add the travel expenses to Dangerhausen you will be better off receiving unemployment benefit than working. In addition the working conditions are said to be bad, the plant is very old, people are not allowed to talk at work and all attempts to form a works council have been blocked by firing the workers involved.
A worker shows us the factory. The halls are empty, the storage halls for material are empty, dismantled machines and tools are stashed in boxes. A few bikes are put away in a corner. "They will be fetched soonish, they all belong to Mifa anyway." Most of the workers only unwillingly remember the proposal made by various lefties to produce bikes under self-management: such ideas do not meet their interests and possibilities - at least if the proposal of self-managed production is put forward as a long term solution. We say that even if they wanted, under the given circumstance they would not be able to continue the production: "That's right, we would not be able. There is no material left here." The Mifa has taken away all material and some machine parts and after consulting a lawyer the workers decided not to obstruct the looting.
"Bloody hell, so you really let them rip you off!" He agrees: "Yes, we are with our asses against the wall. We cannot go on strike anymore, so we had no other choice, but to occupy the plant. We have got nothing to lose anymore. But we stick together like a family." The relations amongst the workers are actually very warmhearted. They all agree on what they are doing, they all know the score and feel a great urge to communicate it to others.
The workers say that they have a very able lawyer and that he is trusted by everyone. "He has already represented us in the negotiations during the bankruptcy." It was Mr. Metz, as well, who elaborated the claims concerning Lone Star: set up a Sozialplan, created a so-called Auffanggesellschaft (employment scheme for dismissed workers) and examined the possibilities to save jobs.
In cooperation with the work council Mr. Metz assesses the legality of proposed actions. Any actions which 'would get us into trouble' are avoided and all the other actions are registered with the police and the respective administrations. The workers are grateful that someone does this job. You cannot keep an eye on the general situation if you are on the street and on demonstrations the whole time while negotiations take place inside. Someone has to do this. "We are workers. We don't have a clue about what we can do legally. At least most of us don't..."
The metalworkers union IGM is present, but hardly visible. The whole premises are decorated with self-made banners and card-board signs. Here and there you can see an IGM sticker, but there is no obvious evidence of union activities. Only about a third of the work-force is in the union.
The most important target is the public now. Several actions aim at public relations and opinion: a visit to the Landtag (state parliament), a party for children, a concert on the premises, a collective blood donation at the Red Cross ("Before Lone Star sucks out our last drop of blood we'd rather donate it"), a stall at the town festival, a town round-trip in a historic tram, leaflets,... other actions are supposed to follow. Workers tell us that RTL (private TV channel) filmed at the factory, but it was not broadcast. First of all the workers in Nordhausen want to get the attention of politicians and potential new investors. The workers are angry about the fact that so far verbal addresses of solidarity were the maximal reaction of politicians. "We want that finally someone takes some money into their hands and does something with it". Or that we at least get a proper severance pay and a Transfergesellschaft (transitional employment society)."
When we left after some hours we are impressed by the enthusiasm, the good mood and the openness of the occupying workers. But we were unimpressed by their unreflected trust in regional politicians and the impact of the media and by their fear or hesitation to develop their own activities and to leave the path of mere friendly and legal public relations.
Two weeks later we went to Nordhausen again. In the meantime Mr. Müller had issued the bankruptcy declaration. For the workers this means that they get up to three months bankruptcy compensation payment (Insolvenzausfallgeld), then they get the sack by 1st of November 2007 at the latest. The company assets available in case of the companies' wind up were increased from 830.000 to 1.5 million Euros. In addition the company offers transitional employment and qualification schemes til 2008.
Despite this the occupation continues. We arrived with the proposal to drive to Sangerhausen (50 km) together with some of the workers, in order to distribute leaflets to the Mifa workers there. No one showed interest in the proposal and apparently there was no idea of contacting the workers in Sangerhausen. "The whole thing is not their fault."
Compared to our last visit the atmosphere had changed completely. No cars beeping, no people gathering in front of the gate. On the factory premises the majority of the very few picketers played cards or darts. Whoever was able to had taken holidays, unfortunately most of our previous acquaintances, as well. The remaining strike shifts are sat out. No one seemed to be interested to talk to us, even those who we had talked to during our last visit. On one hand the few people we talked to said that they were happy to receive the bankruptcy payment now. On the other hand no one made the impression of being at all happy. The drive was entirely gone. The workers said that they are bored, but that they stay on the premises only because the lawyer told them that it would be better from a legal point of view. "I'd rather be inside there and assemble bikes for ten hours a day than hanging out here outside. At least you would have something to do", one worker says. We want to know the reason why they do not leave the plant in order to make their demands known and whether they have any leaflets about the current stage of the conflict. "Nope, we do not have any leaflets". Whether the works council and the lawyer inform them about the negotiation process. "Yes, they keep us informed". What's the score after the negotiation meeting yesterday and what is the current state of negotiations? But no one has exact information. "Somehow everything goes according to the bureaucratic course of things". Allegedly there is a new offer for the take over of the company, according to the lawyer the chance that a new investor will buy the company has increased to 35 per cent. One has to wait for further results of negotiation. Whether they have watched the (so far unreleased) documentary on the Bosch-Siemens-Hausgerätewerk (see prol-position news #8: http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2007/08/bsh/bsh1) which was made available for them. "I think someone watched it", says a woman and points towards some benches, "I think some people have watched it". Next to the documentary DVD someone has put joining forms of the metal union IGM.1
When it comes to struggles against company closures the following questions become central: can workers (still) develop any power at all, and what is the basis of this power? What would be success for such struggles? In most cases, like in the case of Nordhausen, it is a struggle for a 'dignified exit'. This 'dignified exist' can be worth fighting for if those people in struggle gain self-confidence and develop solidarity in the course of struggle and if they experiment with and experience their power in a collective process. We had the impression that this did not happen in Nordhausen (so far). During the whole period of occupation the old company hierarchies were left untouched and active (e.g. the shift-manager was responsible for the decision of who was put on which strike shift, there was a hierarchy regarding access to information and regarding decision making). All workers stuck together, no doubt about that - right from the start the struggle was about a common solution. But instead of using the first weeks of occupation in order to discuss about regional and wider networking and about actions to hit Lone Star effectively, the workers relied solely on their legal representatives. At the end they felt as mere pawns in the legal battle amongst lawyers. They felt that they had no impact on the events themselves and that they had handed over the responsibility to others. They were afraid that they might lose the little they were entitled to once they intensified the struggle for a Sozialplan. This fear reduced their scope of action to a mere symbolic level and thereby paralysed them completely.
A struggle for severance pay can be interesting, too, once it overcomes old hierarchies and divisions, even if the struggle is only about defining the degree or terms of a defeat. But in order to achieve this the struggle has to be lead by the workers themselves. Often (and in the case of Nordhausen, too) the discussion about severance pay - the last thing you can lose - serves the bosses as an emergency brake during negotiations and as a means to immobilise potentially rebellious workers. Though initially the workers in Nordhausen made a very determined impression, it seems that this mechanism worked out in their case, too.
Three weeks after our last visit, on the 6th of September about 80 workers went to Frankfurt/Main in buses organised by the IGM metal union. There they protested in front of the Lone Star head-quarters, fitted out by the IGM and accompanied by many supporters from, amongst others, Nordhausen, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Göttingen. They demanded the withdrawal of the bankruptcy decree and the continuation of production. Meanwhile the workers in Nordhausen had to apply for unemployment benefit ALG I, because - unlike what they had hoped for - the bankruptcy compensation money was not paid immediately after their last proper wage. For a few weeks at least this will mean a significant deterioration of their financial situation for all workers.
What happened since then
The demonstration in Frankfurt is the first initiative taken by the workers to tackle the company directly in order to put pressure on it. During a meeting in Hamburg two Bike System workers gave following interesting information: the temp workers at Mifa earn only 5.77 Euros before tax hourly wages. These workers are the majority at Mifa. They gave following reason for why parts are manufactured in China, but assembled here: despite higher labour costs assembling bikes here is still 20 Euros cheaper than transporting fully assembled bikes from China to Germany. 20 Euros is not much, so they see only little space for putting pressure on the employers... The struggle in Nordhausen is not finished yet.
Update Two: 19th of September in 2007
Staff of occupied bicycle factory in the Thuringian Nordhausen take up production in self-management again. For this aim 1,800 binding orders on bicycles must be received till 2nd of October. So the collegues are working together with the anarcho-syndicalist union FAU (Freie ArbeiterInnen Union – Free Workers-Union), which formed for this campaign the internet-page www.strike-bike.de.
Contact: fahrradwerk at gmx.de
Short Clips on You-Tube:
From wildcat #79, winter 2007
Taken from www.prol-position.net
- 1. When we made our first visit, a few of those from Nordhausen already knew how the IG Metall had stalled at the BSH strike, just before the high-point of the solidarity marches. Two thirds of the workforce of BSH were not happy with results that IG Metall had negotiated and felt betrayed.