Bad vibrations at China's extended workbench, 2008

A report on working life and the possibilities for struggle from a machine plant in Brandenburg, Germany in 2008.

Submitted by Steven. on January 18, 2010

"Of course, I am able to order three pints in Chinese! The only problem was when there were four of us. Well, we first went up north, the factories are really run-down there. Then we went to the special export zones in the south, to the Mazda plant. They have rather splendid avenues and palm-trees in front of the factories".

Winter 2008. Lunch break at MOB, a special ma­chine manufacturing company in Luckenwalde, 60 kilometers south of Berlin, an industrial dormi­tory town, high unemployment, and the home town of Rudi Dutschke, the 1968 SDS student leader. China and the international supply chains reverberate in this German small town proletarian daily life. The 80 workmates are from the hinter­land of Brandenburg and Saxony, mostly village types, but they have assembled giant engine washing-machines in car factories around the globe: for VW in Poznan, Poland, Chery in China, Daimler in Western Germany, Volvo in Sweden, BMW in the USA, Conti in Japan or for wheel rim manufacturing plants in Tijuana,Mexico.

The washing-machines are the size of a bedsit flat. They remove burs from engine blocs and clean them. It takes about six weeks to assemble such a machine. You have to weld the huge frame, assemble the conveyor system and the actual washing drums, you have to wire the whole thing up and program the control system. Currently people work on six of these machines, half of them will be de-assembled again and shipped to China. Some of the workers will be sent with them for re-assembling.

MOB used to belong to an Eastern German state-owned industrial complex. It was taken over by the Western German engineering company MTM GmbH in 1991. Officially MOB is in the debt, which means that the company can cash in subsi­dies from the state. The machines are sold by MTM, a booming company.

MOB is one of the many backbones of the Ger­man "export world-champion", a German role-model: a special machine manufacturer for the world market, a small-scale company, with a Chi­nese interpretor amongst the permanent staff. The order books are full, the skilled mechanics and electricians have been working for the company for years, they are hardly replaceable: despite all this their working-conditions and wages are shockingly bad. They work loads of over-time and weekend-shifts, often 55 to 60 hours per week. Many of them have to commute 60 or more kilo­meters to work, which then adds up to a 12 to 13 hours working-day. MOB does not belong to any union collective contract, the permanent electri­cians and mechanics – family fathers in their mid-40s – get 8,50 to 9,50 Euros before tax. The temp workers – many of them work with MOB for over a year – get 7 Euros before tax. The turnover of temp workers at MOB is high, which is also due to the patriarchal attitude of some of the foremen. If you earn less than 8 Euros and work more than ten hours a day, you shouldn't have to put up with remarks like: "Oy, you got nothing to do right now?! Why don't you wash my car?!" The permanent workers are fed up with having to deal with new faces every week, with having to ex­plain where certain tools are stashed and where the coffee-machine is situated. The work is de­manding, you have to improvise a lot, it takes time for newcomers to get to grips with it.

MOB wants to extend production to a two-shift system and therefore the company wants to hire more people. The management approaches a temp worker who has worked for MOB for over a year, they offer him a permanent employment. The workmate gets out his calculator: the temp agency pays travel money, the company would not. In­cluding this travel money he earns more than the permanents. If the company won't pay travel money, he would have to earn 14,50 Euros before tax in order to improve his current wage. The company offers 8 Euros, he refuses. Thanks, but no thanks. Finally a foreman turns up and asks him to hand in his application anyway.

For most of the other temps the situation is simi­lar: "I first worked at MOB hired through a differ­ent temp agency, but they did not pay for the trav­el expenses. At the end of the month I was left with 800 Euros, which is 200 Euros less than my former dole money. So I went to a different temp agency and told them: 'Look, I am already work­ing with this company MOB, I offer you the con­nection with this company and my own work-force, you just have to hire me and pay me more than the current temp agency'. They then phoned up MOB and the deal was done. I changed agen­cies. My next problem was to fill up my work-time account with the new agency: with this agen­cy, you have to gather 150 hours of overtime be­fore they pay them out in cash. At MOB I have no problems to get these hours together". This work­mate is very fond of the ongoing train-drivers' strike: "They just have to be aware, they cannot go on strike for too long, otherwise they will be re­placed by other drivers". This fear of "being re­placed" is deeply ingrained, even when talking about a quite "irreplaceable" workforce like train drivers.

Workers' discontent simmers on a low flame at MOB. The management takes any order, they con­tinuously shrink the time-frame for production and delivery, they have to increase the pressure on the workers. Previously the different profes­sions worked one after the other: first the welders, then the mechanics, then guys for the pneumatics, then the electricians etc.. Now people step on each others toes, they are under time pressure, often there is a lack of certain spare parts, so people have to work on three different machines at the same time. Confusion. Workmates see it rather as 'mismanagement' than a logical consequence of global competition. The management announced the two-shift system and the cut of the Saturday bonus-payment at the same time. Some workers individually enforce that they do not have to work every Saturday. They threaten the company that they will leave the job. Instead of paying the com­mon Christmas bonus this year the company paid out 80 hours of overtime, without bonus. Many colleagues have accumulated 300 and more hours on their work-time accounts. People are fed up with being send abroad or on site assembly from one day to the next, sometimes over the weekend. For the time on site assembly – usually in Western Germany - they get 24 Euros per day for accommodation. You can hardly pay the food with that money. You are only able to make more money by going on site assembly, because you will work even longer hours.

Why do the workmates accept these conditions? The answer to this question seems to be given when a worker tells that some of the machine parts have been assembled in the MOB plant in Poland. Things seem to be clear: yet another ex­ample of threatening re-location of production to low wage regions further east. But the colleague demystifies the common assumption by saying: "They shut down the plant for the time being, be­cause the guys there left the plant in droves. Most of the Polish welders went to Sweden, they now earn more than we do. MOB then found a work­shop in Magdeburg (a nearby Eastern German town) which does the welding work even cheaper the Polish plant used to do. This is how things are these days."

People talk quite openly about the "strikes" at MOB in autumn 2007. In September 2007 the agreement between the works council and man­agement ran out. The management then delayed the new agreement, which was supposed to limit the overtime account to 150 hours. During this time the workers refused to work on Saturdays and the works council organized so-called "infor­mation meetings". In Germany the works council – the representation of workers in a single compa­ny – is not allowed to call for strikes. The works council has the legal right to call all workers for a certain numbers of "information meetings", a right which is often used as a way of putting pressure on the management. A new agreement was forged, but the overtime craze continues, with the future two-shift scheme things will get even worse. Workers accuse their reps of being compa­ny friendly. If you ask them why they take all the shit despite the company running on full steam and despite their status as senior skilled workers they say: "Because 9 Euros before tax is quite good money in ghost-town Luckenwalde".
Report from (20. January 2008), see (in German).