Philips Semiconductors weekend shift contract dispute, 2006

An account and interviews with workers involved in a dispute on working hours and weekend working at Philips Semiconductors in Hamburg in 2006.

Submitted by Steven. on January 11, 2010

“On Saturdays the company belongs to Daddy”1 – weekend-shifts and collective contract conflict at Philips Semiconductors (PSH) in Hamburg, Germany

The popular conception of IT associates the sector with highly paid computer programmers, thereby turning a blind eye on the fact that the major share of the work is done in micro-electronic industries where the means of work, e.g. materials for the software developers, are manufactured. The production of semi-conductors is part of this industry. In order to produce micro-chips so-called (silicon) wafers have to undergo various processes. Philips is one of the biggest manufacturer in Europe.

The fact that the semi-conductor industry is a normal industry ridden by 'normal' industrial disputes became obvious in autumn 2005, when (mainly migrant) workers at Infineon in Munich struck for eight days and the police were deployed against them. Up to the 70s in the production at Philips in Hamburg, mainly female workers (mostly from Yugoslavia) were employed. At the beginning of the 80s a lot of workers from Vietnam were hired, since the end of the 80s mainly German skilled workers found a job at Philips. Till today this history has its impacts: extremely authoritarian and paternalistic structures within the plant, which the skilled workers hardly cope with. But not only the skilled workers, also the Vietnamese in the company have become more radical, after an initial phase of being rather industrial and of not expressing their conflicts openly. During the latest actions noticeably more of them took part, but we are jumping ahead.

Since a long time there have been conflicts concerning flexiblisation of working hours and over-time at Philips: concerning the control over ones own time. In December 2005 this conflict was settled temporarily by the metal union, IG Metall. The main actors of the conflict were the workers of the weekend-shift. The shift-scheme was introduced by Philips in the mid-80s. The obligation to work regularly and exclusively on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays was sweetened by the payment of high bonuses. Philips calculated that once weekend-shifts were seen as normal it would be possible to enforce them on a regular and obligatory basis for everyone (the so-called conti-shift model). Instead the workers of the weekend-shift were able to settle in the situation and to organise their lives accordingly. By now, the most recent new workers joining the weekend-shifts have been doing it eight or nine years. The turn-over in the rotating shift (early, late, night) is higher and the seniority much lower. Despite the high turnover, relatively few people were hired during the last years. Instead the employment of workers from temp agencies has increased rapidly. Previous to 2001 there were hardly any temp workers, now over 300 workers (nearly one third of the total staff) at PSH are temps. They are employed according to a collective contract comprising of three stages: they start working earning about half the wage of a PSH worker, they can 'improve' their pay to a maximum of two thirds of the PSH wage. Recently technicians and white-collar workers were hired through temp agencies. Their total wage sum is not much lower, but they can be sacked any time.

One of the key words of the confrontation during the 90s was 'working-time accounts'. In 1996 they were introduced temporarily. Initially the scheme encountered only half-hearted resistance, because it was brought in during a situation of economic crisis and a lot of people saw it as an alternative to enforced short-time work. Workers accumulated a lot of 'minus-hours' in their working-time accounts, receiving the normal wage. One year later the company asked the workers to make up for the minus-hours by working over-time, but a lot of the weekend-shift workers refused to work additional shifts on weekdays. The next important attack happened in 2001. Philips split itself into various branches, amongst others the semi-conductor production was then run under the name Philips Semiconductors. Given the formal fact that a new company was formed, the old collective contract was at stake. The former IG Metall collective contract was supposed to be replaced by an IG BCE (chemical union) contract, which would have meant a worsening of conditions. The threat of deterioration resulted in the IG Metall getting in a stronger position. Under the name of IG Metall a collective contract was signed whose consequences became relevant only later on: allegedly in order to encourage new employment by lowering the entry wages (wages during the initial period after being hired), the works council agreed on excluding the question of extra-payment for shift-work from the collective contract. Hardly any new workers were hired anyway. Instead the missing regulation of extra-payment was used as a lever in 2004 to try to enforce more flexible working hours. Disregarding the high companies profits, PSH demanded 25 per cent lower unit labour cost. Given that there were no margins for rationalisation left (e.g. by automation) it was clear that the wages were in the focus of the attack. The workers in the second German PHS plant in Boeblingen were defeated quite quickly. There the works council agreed to an additional clause to the collective contract, which resulted in a wage cut of about 16 per cent due to unpaid longer working hours. According to the view of the union, the collective contract was not touched by this wage cut given that it was regulated in the additional clause and therefore the possibility for any strike action was excluded. Fractions in the works council in Hamburg called for the adoption of the 'Boeblingen Agreement' in the local plant, but during a members assembly of the IG Metall a different compromise was agreed on: ten per cent of the total wage sum was offered to be cut in return for the inclusion of the question of extra-payment for shift work in the collective contract, in order to secure the payment and to have the legal right to go on strike in case of future attacks on the extra-payment.

Trying to black-mail the workers the management announced to cut the extra-payment for 800 shift-workers by 30th of June 2005. At the same time about 1,500 white-collar workers in the attached departments were threatened with job cuts in case that no agreement would be found.

The workers reacted on different levels: firstly the personal frustration increased, the rate of sick leave and the rate of junk micro-chips which end up as waste are above-average till today; secondly about 100 of the workers affected by the cut of extra-payment for shift work sued the company; thirdly people tried to influence the power-relations in the representing union bodies; fourthly people collected signatures, organised protest meetings and demonstrations in front of the Philips stall on the Internationale Funkausstellung (international industrial trade fair) in Berlin and in front of the PHS plant in Nijmegen, Netherlands. As long as this conflict went on the IG Metall was in a defensive position.

After the management did not move and the negotiations seemed to fail the regional leader of the IG Metall got involved personally in order to 'get things going' – just in time before the labour court could announce the outcome of the workers' accusation against the company. Her involvement toppled all the previously agreed on principles, the decisions of the union members assembly and the vote of the union commission which decides how to proceed during a collective contract conflict. People had to simply put up with the outcome. The 'new compromise' based on unpaid longer working hours or alternatively wage cuts of 7.14 per cent, the cut of extra-payment for over-time and a postponement of future wage increases. Given that workers had hoped to win the court case against the company, which would have re-installed their old conditions, the workers felt stabbed in the back by the union.

At the beginning of March 2006 we had a chat with some of the workers working week-end shifts. The conversation mainly tackled the situation previous to 2000, when the union was hardly present in the company and workers were able to create some spaces for themselves based on their own strength, which they were able to maintain for quite a while. There are various reasons for why the union got stronger during the last four or five years, e.g. the increasing marginalisation of the “old” weekend-shift due to more and more temp workers brought in, but also due to the limits of spontaneous self-organisation itself. involvement in the unions is surely not the only possible or “best” answer to the question of how a “common interest” can be articulated, but only situations of open struggles will be able to set in motion a dynamic which can bring different answers to the fore...

Question: We were mainly interested in the movement at PSH because your struggle was not only about money. It was always present that a certain lifestyle of the guys on weekend shift was at stake. We perceived this element of your struggle as a part of your strength. We were also surprised that during the struggle a lively debate in your internet-forum took (2) place, an organisational form which has only recently been discovered by 'normal workers'. And last but not least: your mobilisation was organised independently from the union leadership, and sometimes against it. How would you characterise your group working weekend shift compared to those who work 'normal shifts'?
Fiete: The people working weekend shift belong to those who work in the company for the longest time. Their personal living situation is more stable, therefore they are able to take more risks. If you have got a job only recently you will not have the same social and financial security compared to a 45 years old man who already has had some experience and who also has some material security in the background.

Bodo: The level of education is definitely higher in the weekend shift, a lot of former students, some with degrees, who still work at Philips, who got stuck and were not able to jump back onto the career ladder.

Richi: One major advantage is the fact that the weekend shift workers have more time on their hands. Work is not dominating our minds to such an extend as it is bothering the guys who work rotating shifts, who have to work eight hours each day and are more preoccupied with work.

Bodo: And the weekend shift is not touched by hierarchy in the same way as the rotating shift is. We used to have a shift leader who tried to exercise his authoritarian control. Apart from the fact that we resisted this control, by using the works council and the other usual ways, he was clearly not coping, although we were only twelve people in my department at that time. He was not able to supervise the work that each one of us was doing at a given moment. We do not work on an assembly line. For example, sometimes I have to do etching work in the respective department, after that I might have to finish polishing work outside, after that the laboratory might need tidying up etc.. Because I have to do all kinds of jobs the shift leader was never able to accuse me of slacking off work. If he had asked me where I had just been I would have said that I had to refill some acid or something like that. In the rotating shift there are many more supervisors running around, so there is always someone watching you. In the weekend shift we have more space, more freedom, we can move around. The others are always under surveillance.

Fiete: We are also more independent, we are used to working on our own.

Carsten: The unity is stronger in the weekend shift, everyone knows each other, beyond department boundaries. During the weekend there might be 150 work mates gathered in the canteen, during the week there are about 1,800. This creates a completely different atmosphere, much more family like.

Question: And was this the case before the conflict started?
Carsten: Yes, but it has grown stronger of course. You have to know that people do this job for a long time, they know each other.

Bodo: The whole unity has got something like an elitist character to it, too. We have always distinguished ourselves from the rotating shift. We have also given them different names (laughter). When we arrived on Fridays with our folks we turned up in a different style than the normal shift – as a group. The bosses partly lost control over these folks and the guys enjoyed bullying the bosses and their helpers on Fridays, and not the other way around as it is usual. As a result of that the whole leading clique, including the technicians hated us. Once a technician came out of the photo tunnel, he was on normal late shift, but he arrived earlier. He bumped into my mate Paul and me, we were just about to go outside for lunch. He said: “Where do you want to head off to? I arrived earlier, specially in order to train you on the piss-taker (a particular machine)”. We walked past him to the canteen, saying “not right now, we are off to lunch”. He went to the shift leader, grassed on us and complained. The shift leader told him “Lunch time is lunch time”. There were many of these kinds of incidents. During the week there are no back chats, then these technicians have the say. By the way, our shift leader justified a demand for wage rise by saying that he is the only one who gets along with us, which flattered our self-confidence quite a bit, as well.

Fiete: We also have to mention that the weekend shift was more productive, compared to the rotating shift. Sixty per cent of the production was run at the weekend, during two days. Therefore they were never able to bother us and they left us in peace as long as it was possible. This is partly still true today. Another factor was that we were able to just start churning stuff out, there was never an engineer around who would have wanted to run test series or something like that.

Question: And what about the union, later on? By the sounds of it you were quite used to taking the things you wanted yourselves.
Bodo: First of all we stuck to the structures that we already knew. For example, initially we had huge difficulties with the new shift leader, who tried to bring in discipline and to keep everything under his control, there was a lot of unjustified harassment, as well. We always went downstairs to the works council and complained. First of all you have to realise what is going on. If the works council notes down three, four pages of complains against our shift leader you should think that the management might decide to have a word with him. In my experience it often only looks like them having a word with him. This also had the function to calm us down, to let off steam, so that we would not take the initiative ourselves. We had no other contact with the union at that point, apart from being members. There was no union structure within the company.

Fiete: We also did not fit into the unions political trajectory, given their running campaign for a 35-hours week at that time. The rotating shift got their working hours reduced, we had to work more. We got more money for more work, whereas the rotating shift got the same money for less work. Part-time workers or weekend shift workers were not really their target group. We were more or less the thorn in the unions side. Everything that was important to us was irrelevant for the union. They also never supported us when we came up with a problem.

Bodo: You have to take into account that we broke a taboo, we undermined a fix point of the union's horizon. We worked regular weekend shifts. We also accepted some deteriorations, because we did not have a clue, because we were freshers and we did not react to the deteriorations. In 1992, when they cut parts of our Christmas bonus we thought that they have the legal right to do so, well, we cannot change that any more. In 1994 during a company assembly, when the proxy of the works councils chairman started some provocations, we reacted by writing four pamphlets. The action was rather playful, we did not really try to enforce anything, but it resulted in heavy reactions from the department management. They were not too angry with us, they rather treated us like small children who are having a moody day. They tried to appease us explaining that currently there was no money left over, that the market was currently down etc.. – they were almost kind, you could say. There were no sanctions against us, which could have been possible given that we collected signatures for support. The shift manager gave us a verbal warning, but when he told the department management about it, they just looked at him in disbelief 'What does he want anyway'? Our demand: 'No work during the week or if at all, then in exchange for 100 DM extra' was not meant that seriously anyway. The Vietnamese in our department were the only ones who actually kept it up and defended it over a longer period. For us it was rather a way to have a laugh, we wanted to get rid of our anger.

Question: How does this self-confidence match the fact that in 2004 there was a general readiness to make concessions towards the management and to accept wage cuts? Their demand at that time was to cut wages by 25 per cent.
Carsten: There were two events which preceded this situation. First of all the move of PSH in 2001 when they wanted to leave the collective contract with the IG Metall in order to sign a contract with the IG Chemie. Previous to that the union membership in the plant in Hamburg was quite low, about 400 people. At the end of this conflict about shifting the contract we nearly doubled the membership to about 900.

Bodo: Yes, 2001 was a turning point. In 1997 we had an intense conflict about the working time accounts (flexible working time), which we managed to sort out ourselves. The weekend-shift kicked it off more or less on its own, later on the rotating-shift followed. During this conflicts things happened, for example someone did a shit in front of the works councils office, or their cars rear-view mirrors were allegedly ripped off. At that point the works council was giving in only because people collected signatures. Later on it was not that easy any more. We still had a quite individualistic attitude towards the works council elections in 1998. We merely wanted some people in the works council who would tell us in time when something was in the making, when the management planned changes. We did not think about majorities or something like that. We thought, well, that will do for us, we are strong enough. The union actually entered the stage in 2001 when the new company manager announced that by separating the semi-conductor production from the Philips group, the new PSH would leave the employers association of the metal sector and affiliate to the chemical one. Only at that point the metal union turned up. We started recruiting members en-masse during the weekends. Also the operators did it and people during the rotating-shift. The membership numbers for the IG Metall really rocketed. The management reacted by saying 'That will not do you any good'. But finally they got scared. The people were ready to strike and they voiced it persistently. Given that it was about a new collective contract a strike would have been possible, unlike now.

Richi: The background for the guys on weekend-shift was their fear to have to work Conti-shift once being affiliated to the collective contract of the chemical sector.

Bodo: Like already mentioned, in 2001 we experienced a rupture. We noticed that we had made a lot of mistakes, because we had no idea about certain things. We turned around and faced yet another messy attack and the union was out of sight. So we declared ourselves as representatives, we were not elected, we just said that we would do it. When the commission for the collective contract was elected, we were all invited to the members assembly and that was it. We thought that we should pop by, as well. There were only 50 people present, a lot of white-collar staff, but only 50 out of nearly 3,000! And this assembly elected the commission for the collective contract negotiations. We managed to get some people from the weekend-shift elected, just in order to be able to know what is going on, it was not about majorities. When the collective contract negotiations were finished we noticed that the contract allowed the management to enforce overtime etc.. We tried to question the contract afterwards, but the colleagues were happy that at least the conflict about the pending shift to the chemical sectors contract was solved, that they could stick to the metal contract. We did not manage to mobilise more people against the negative aspects of the new contract.

Question: How serious did people take the threat of the plant in Hamburg being 'dried out' and the threat of a possible re-location of production?
Fiete: People did not take it too serious. At that point it was not on the agenda. People said: “OK, if they shut down the shop, they will shut down the shop. The world will keep on turning. But we will not sell out our weekend-shift model”.

Question: How do you explain the fact that those workers who became very active and who on a personal level were very much opposed to cuts on one hand, justified a 'combative compromise' as part of their union engagement and shop steward activity on the other hand. All that while a silent majority displayed a defensive acceptance of cuts on one hand, but practically and increasingly refused to cooperate with the company on the other hand – you told us for example that the sick rate increased to about 20 per cent.
Fiete: This is not difficult to understand. The people are afraid to act openly, they try to find individual solutions for themselves. They calculate how much they will lose and how long they have to go on sick leave in order to make up for it. That is their reaction. The 20 per cent sick rate was in July, when they cut the bonuses. During that time you earned more money being on sick leave then working.

Question: In hindsight, how would you judge your union activities? From today's perspective, would it not have been more sensible to refuse negotiations, to leave them to someone else, in order to focus on more offensive debates with the other workers?
Fiete: Do you mean to struggle the tough way? I think we tried. In some departments the sick rate was beyond good and evil. The question is for how long people can keep it up.

Richi: There are many like us who would be able to keep it up for ages. But there are also many who would not. And the management black-mailed us by not paying shift bonus from July onwards.

Fiete: Those who were ill during that period had to appear for a conversation with the personnel department. Those forced conversations happened on a daily level. Every Friday when we arrived at work someone was ordered to go to have a word with them. Every half an hour someone was due. They put quite a lot of pressure on us.

Bodo: Some things happened and they suspected sabotage, the word always came up quickly. The rate of rejects was very high, it still is above average.

Question: What has changed among the workers during the one and a half years of conflict?
Thilo: The unity within the weekend-shift and partly in the rotating-shift has grown stronger. And now you know who stands on which side. This is good, even though it has created some new divisions on the other side. The collective contract is proof of the fact that the management had to make concessions concerning certain points. They made concessions, not towards the weekend-shift, but towards the rotating-shift and the white-collar workers.

Question: What kind of emotion is prevailing amongst yourselves and your work mates today? A feeling of having won, given that you were able to wring concessions from the company, or a feeling of defeat, given that the IG Metall leadership managed to trip you up right at the end of the conflict?
Thilo: Finally I see it as a defeat. We actually got (too) little gains out of it. Of course I am disappointed.

Bodo: For me it is not always a question of victory or defeat. It is not a victory, because we could have achieved more if we had been more united. But it is not a defeat either. If you take the current social trends into account then you have to admit that we still work less than 40 hours a week. The current propaganda that nowadays everyone works 40 hours a week is factually untrue. We do not do it!

History of the Philips workers internet forum

Part 1 (we-resist)

We started our internet forum as part of the metal union's forum successfully during the ongoing collective contract conflict in September 2004. In January 2005 there were anonymous death threats against some of the full-time works council members posted in the forum. These usual suspects have often been target of (harmless) verbal attacks due to their employer-friendly attitude. Although there have been more than 1,000 entries in the forum which no-one complained about and despite the fact that everyone can post anonymous messages without having to register, people for whom the forum was a thorn in the side exaggerated these 'verbal terrorist acts' and used them publicly against the forum. (...) Philips took action for injunction against the IG Metall, demanding to remove the anonymous death threat. The IG Metall closed the forum three days after the death threat, on 21st of January 2005. In court a representative of the IG Metall made a declaration that the IG Metall had nothing to do with the 'Philips employees forum'.

Part 2

Immediately after the closing down of the IG Metall forum we opened an independent 'Philips employees forum'. But this forum only ran for a few days, the provider Webtropia received a legal warning from Philips because of the name 'Philips employees forum' and the usage of the brand name Philips in the sub-domain. The solicitors office which was hired by Philips put pressure on the provider and immediately wanted to get money for the legal warning (solicitors costs). Webtropia put pressure on our web-master (a work mate), wanting to know his identity and to transfer the legal demands of Philips to him (...) In the end the solicitor of our web-master and the solicitor of Philips agreed on 2,000 Euros costs for the legal warning which were paid by the IG Metall.

Part 3

On the 29th of January 2005 the forum was registered with the provider in the USA. Until the 3rd of October 2005 we were able to communicate without being disturbed and to tell the outside world about what was happening at Philips during the recent months. We posted some reports and photos from our protest actions: a vigil in Hamburg, a protest at the industrial fair in Berlin, a demonstration in Nijmegen (Netherlands). Since 4th of October the ProBoards-forum could not be accessed. We can only speculate about the reasons for the cut off.

Part 4

We continue! Since October 2005...

[prol-position news #6 | 7/2006]

  • 1Pun in German: In the mid-80s the headline of a poster for the union's campaign for shorter working-time said “On Saturdays Daddy is all mine”, headlining the picture of a young child.