Translation of article from wildcat collective on strike at packaging manufacturer in Germany in 2013 and the question of strike support.
The strike at Neupack and the question of strike solidarity
The packaging manufacturer Neupack has two plants, one in Hamburg-Stellingen and one in Rotenburg/Wuemme. The company employs 200 people, out of which two thirds work in production, e.g. of yoghurt pots. The strike in 2013 was conducted under the slogan of 'Justice. Against the arbitrary rule at Neupack'. The goal of the works council and the trade union was a company-based collective agreement (Haustarifvertrag). This contract was supposed to guarantee 83 per cent of the wage stipulated in the sector-wide collective agreement* (Flaechentarifvertrag) and fix wage scales, in order to obtain a more transparent wage categorisation of the workers. The strike attracted wide public attention and a degree of external support - also from the radical left - which hasn't been seen in the Hamburg area in a long time. Nevertheless, this did not turn the strike into a 'victory'.
...thought that their strike would be able to impact on the capitalist, which turned out to be the wrong assessment. The office workers didn't take part in the strike; and only a small number of the machine operators, who are of central importance in the production process at Neupack, joined the strike. This was the reason production could be re-started after a relatively short period of time after strike-breakers were hired. The fully-stocked company warehouses, which are located a short distance away from the plants, were not involved in the strike at all. A blockade of the warehouse had not been part of the plan, neither of the trade union IG BCE 1 nor the striking workers themselves. Neupack was able to keep on delivering; bottle-necks were compensated for by buying additional goods from other packaging companies.
The strike was essentially kept up by the low-skilled workers, most of whom have been paid below the level set out in the sector-wide collective contract and who complained about deteriorating working conditions. In contrast, the foremen and machine operators were paid above the wage level fixed by the collective contract. We find exactly this division in many companies nowadays. Neupack is therefore not a company managed with 'feudal mentality', an expression used frequently by the trade union, but rather a 'modern' enterprise. Part of this arrangement is that many of the better paid workers don't have a formal qualification, but were able to climb the ladder over the years, which partly explains their great loyalty towards the capitalist. Therefore the strike was not a reaction to a particularly scandalous situation, but rather an attempt of worse paid workers to improve their position within a divided workforce and to secure it legally. Finally it was mainly the packers who went on strike and who all received different wages and arbitrary bonus payments. A strike able to assert itself vis-a-vis the company would have needed a massive blockade of the plant and the warehouse with the support of external forces. This would have gone beyond the boundary of the trade union framework. This was not wanted - and probably also impossible.
Around 40 workers in Rotenburg and 70 workers in Hamburg-Stellingen followed the trade union's call to strike. Initially they hoped that the organisational power of the trade union would provide both unity and strength. When the trade union gave up on the goal of a 'collective agreement' they felt betrayed and protested. But at no point did workers develop their own (organisational) structures. An expression of which was the fact that the workers didn't discuss the concrete aim of the strike and the strikers were not able to say exactly what the collective agreement should contain. A discussion about the question of who on the shop-floor benefits from a collective agreement * and who doesn't, was rejected by both strikers and the solidarity committee: This discussion would destroy the 'unity' of the strikers.
...did not come from the company itself. As early as one week after the beginning of the strike the company used strike-breakers from Poland. Initially the picket-line was determined and blockaded the entry to the plant, but after a court order it turned into an ineffective mass of people. Later on the blockades consisted mainly of external supporters; the strikers themselves were only marginally involved.
During the whole process, workers and supporters didn't succeed in finding a common position towards the strike-breakers. After a certain period of time, the strike-breakers who had previously been employees of the company were no longer even called to join the strike. At that point, everyone focused on the strike-breakers from Poland. In January 2013 Neupack hired more strike-breakers. At least at this point the strike no longer had any economical impact. In mid-January, during a confrontation in the strike-breakers' dormitory in Rotenburg, a Polish worker got seriously injured. The police conducted an inquiry amongst Neupack workers from Rotenburg. Whatever happened there, at this point at least, the strikers and the solidarity committee would have needed to re-think their strategy towards the strike-breakers. Instead there was a complete silence regarding this topic.
The trade union...
...initially seemed to have had the same misconception about the determination of the workforce and the impact of a strike as the workers themselves. There couldn't be any other explanation for why they chose the strategy of a 'coercive' strike. The demand for a collective contract was an attempt to unite as many people as possible: through wage increases for the lower pay scales without cutting wages of the upper ones; by excluding the question of bonus payments; and, most importantly, by regulating the promotion procedures - a legal regulation, which counts on the collaboration of the employer. This didn't work, neither in relation to the workforce nor in relation to the management, which wasn't willing to enter negotiations over a company-based collective agreement.
After an interruption of the strike over the Christmas period, the trade union changed its strike tactic and called for a flexi-strike: under great fanfare workers were sent back to work, in order to be called out for strikes on a weekly basis. The flexi-strike was an attempt to let the strike run out, while maintaining the trade union's position as negotiation partners. Given the fact that together with the newly hired strike-breakers there were way too many workers employed now at Neupack, the situation arose that the flexible strike dates were actually a 'gift' for the company. The employer saved personnel costs while stocks were not depleted.
The solidarity circle...
...was formed in Hamburg before the strike started (www.solikreis.blogsport.de). It wanted to support the workers' struggle unconditionally. Initially the solidarity circle voiced no opposition to the trade union (leadership) and its strategy. When the trade union IG BCE retracted the goal of a 'collective contract', the solidarity circle set the trade union leadership up as an enemy, as those who 'preach social partnership, while the small capitalist (Neupack) engages in class struggle' and betray 'the closed-ranks of the combative Neupack workers' strike-front'. The publicity work of the solidarity circle was, without a doubt, the main reason for why the strike became popular. But the publicity work always remained 'tactical' in the bad sense, by not addressing the obvious problems of the strike. Internally, as well, discussions about divisions and shortcomings of the strike were not welcomed. It was particularly problematic that during the blockades the external supporters, including ourselves, mainly focused on the strike-breakers from Poland. Here we should have raised our discontent much earlier on.
A strike support such as that promoted by the solidarity circle tends to act in substitution for the workers - even if they state the opposite and even want to do the opposite. The circle got itself fairly quickly into this position, because there weren't any workers organising themselves, who would have tried to take the lead in this situation.
The limits of the strike
The strike at Neupack had two limitations that the strikers weren't able to overcome: Internally, the existing divisions were not dissolved and the emergence of new divisions was not prevented. Externally the strike was not able to generate a wider 'radiance' - despite the broad public media attention and the interest of the left-unionists and radical left scene in Hamburg. The external support was limited to the political scene and political party representatives. The strikers at Neupack did not relate to other ongoing struggles; visits of workers from other companies at the strike tent remained marginal and limited to union officials.
What would have been preconditions to overcome these limitations? A generalisation of the struggle beyond these boundaries would have to be based on a real solidarity, which is different from numerous solidarity messages. The council communist Henri Simon wrote some years ago on the question of the 'effectiveness' of media solidarity:
"The solidarity in struggles is not based on ideology or consciousness, but on a perceptible commonality of interest in daily exploitation. [...] In class struggle solidarity is first of all a community of interest. This common interest is characterised by the fact that workers feel that a struggle of others is at the same time their own struggle, because it enables them to confront the power of capital, which usually opposes them like a solid wall. Solidarity in class struggle is, first of all, a struggle for one's own interest, often quite distant from the big ideals, which are projected onto it. Any struggle, as limited as it might be, takes on its own dynamic, and around this community of interest the struggle extents the community, changes it or limits it." 2
This argument is based on the insight that the possibilities to support struggles from outside are limited and it is at the same time a critique of groups which tell workers what they are supposed to do. If solidarity is based on a 'perceptible common interest', then this either exists and can be perceived or not. The conditions for a generalisation of the struggle at Neupack were not given, workers of other companies did not join in. The workers were in a weak position - something a lot of workers have to face.
What does the weakness of such workforces consist of? Within the entire production chain these companies are technologically of rather 'average' standard with a high share of workers who have been trained on the job and a minority of skilled machine operating workers. Within the plant there are various divisions (skilled/unskilled; high fluctuation; different company contracts within the plant). The trade union - when present at all - are a further expression of these divisions; the collective contracts legally settle the divisions. Starting from these conditions, how can workers gain strength in struggle? What kind of lessons can we draw from the experience at Neupack?
In general it seems sensible to emphasise not the particularities, but the general aspects of the problems and aims of struggles. If we scandalise the specifically bad working conditions we might attract big media attention, but subsequently it will be difficult to get out of the 'victim's role' again. At Neupack that would have meant not putting the demand for a company based collective contract into the foreground, but the criticism of the workers regarding low wages and unequal working conditions.
Many struggles in such 'weak' sectors are not able to assert themselves without support from the outside. Experiences from the US (Wal-Mart) and Italy (strike of the logistics workers at IKEA) provide potentially more far-reaching answers: weaker parts of the workforce struggle for themselves, supported by others from the outside. Because they took a clear position opposing generally shit conditions, their struggle developed a strong attraction. They did not wait for other categories of workers to join them, but they were looking for effective points at which to attack the employer. They did not let the trade union dictate how to lead the struggle, but used them in order to enforce their interest. These struggles were preceded by a long process of organising - by workers' militants visiting other workers at home and by calling for assemblies - before the strike front was established.
Start of an unlimited strike for a company-based collective contract
Strike-breakers from Poland start working, initially as temp-agency workers, later on they get permanent contracts
From December onwards
Blockade of the plant gates on single days by external supporters
Last blockade action
Return to work and start of the flexi-strike
Official end of the strike
no collective contract (Haustarifvertrag: legal and enforceable), only a company agreement (Betriebsvereinbarung: voluntary)
regulation of job descriptions of all workers in the production department; skill categorisation of job tasks
regulation of holiday payment
reduction of the weekly working-times to 38 hours, full compensation of wages
lowest hourly wage now 9 Euro p/h (previously 7,80 Euro), highest wage in production 18 Euro.
There are also reports about continuing bullying, warning letters issued for strike activists and persistent arbitrariness regarding wages
 In Germany the legal right to strike is derived from the freedom to form associations inscribed in the constitution. Trade unions are only allowed to call for strike once collective contract negotiations have failed - with the aim to come to a collective agreement. This reduces the 'right to strike' to a very limited institutional arena. At the same time no employee can be forced to do scab labour.
 Henri Simon: Solidarite virtuelle, Echanges, July 1997