An account of welfare claimants' collective organising for their rights in Germany.
In front of Berlin-Neukölln "JobCenter", 11th of April 2006: a big banner signals some dozen activists' rejection of the local Labour Exchange's practices. Members of the anarchosyndicalist FAU Berlin distribute leaflets which list grievances, name malevolent staff, and give useful hints for the unemployed on how to avoid being conned by the agency in a quarter which is notorious for high unemployment rates and increasing social disintegration.
"The way the JobCenter's staff treat the unemployed is scandalous", explains Marie Krieg of FAU Berlin. "Many applicants' forms for the dole allegedly disappear, often more than once. People don't receive their money in time. The employees create a climate of intimidation and persecution. Sanctions and cuts in subsidies are being implemented as it seems arbitrarily and with hardly any public control."
Marie Krieg can tell: she herself was given a hard time by the agency when her dole was cut by 90 percent based on false accusations in a striking violation of the anyhow derogatory regulations. As a consequence, Marie went to confront her not-so-competent official directly, accompanied by two FAU-comrades. Although the outcome of the visit was ambiguous, it was an example for practical anarchosyndicalist solidarity. "We try to make sure that no one needs to go the Labour Exchange on her or his own", stresses FAU member Gerd Fischer. "Showing up in two or more makes the staff assume a different, that is more cooperative, attitude, less inclined to fool you or twist your words."
Marie Krieg was not the first member of FAU Berlin drawn into quarrels with the Labour Exchange: shortly after the implementation of the so called Hartz IV law in January 2005, intended to reduce the costs of social welfare and to help expand the low-income sector, Inge Menzel was kept waiting for her money for weeks on end without any explanation.
Official inquiries by other FAU members on the whereabouts of the due payments only led to further annoyances and dirty tricks on the part of the agency. "This experience of a comrade being exposed to official arbitrariness and chicanery led us to work against the Hartz laws on a regular basis", explains Gerd Fischer. "In accordance with the anarcho-syndicalist principles, we wanted to become active primarily in situations when we ourselves and our comrades were directly affected. So we decided to take up Inge's JobCenter in Berlin-Pankow - of the various that exist in Berlin - first."
The activists established a working group, the so called 'Anti-Hartz-AG', as a crosssection institution of FAU Berlin. The aim was to enable members of the four different branch syndicates in Berlin to become involved in activities against cuts in welfare without being forced to quit their proper syndicate and join something like a syndicate for unemployed. Gerd Fischer underlines the reasons: "We reject constructions like syndicates for unemployed, as they exist elsewhere, because we don't want to organize along lines established by state and capital. Besides, we find it necessary for FAU members to remain linked to their original branches in order not loose contact to their professions. Finally, also our members which are still employed can be better informed about the Hartz related problems, since they are often affected indirectly by these laws.
The Anti-Hartz-AG decided to meet publicly on a weekly basis. Marie Krieg: "We wanted to establish a forum for unemployed and employed alike who want to get involved in anti- Hartz-activities. Right from the start, we intended to become engrained in the neighbourhood. Initially, our meetings mainly served as tutorials - we would exchange information about the new laws and the consequences for ourselves and other unemployed. Basically, we needed to train ourselves for being able to advise others." But it was not long before the idea of a quarter based advice centre actually took off.
To prevent others from being conned by the JobCenter like Inge Menzel, the anti- Hartz-activists made available a pamphlet that depicted Inge's case, gave useful hints on precautions to take and pointed out to the weekly meeting of the working group. Every week, Marie and her comrades handed out about 300 leaflets to the visitors of Inge's JobCenter. Soon, the FAU office was flooded with unemployed seeking consultation. "We could hardly cope with it", Marie Krieg remembers. "At the beginning, there were only three or four activists, but at peak times something like 12 people seeking advice, plus heaps of requests via telephone."
The good resonance was partially due to the novelty of the Hartz laws, which created a great demand of information. Another reason for the unexpected massive feedback was the activists' persistence: "We kept distributing our pamphlets for months on end", says Gerd Fischer. "We continuously improved the contents to reflect our growing experiences and practice."
In addition, the syndicalists arranged a meeting with the JobCenter's managing director. "That was more or less futile", remembers Alexander Panagoulis. "The manager was keen on finding out how many unemployed we represent, that is if we might pose a danger to his agency. He probably saw the 'anarcho…' in our letter-head and figured we might be a bunch of unpredictable radicals. Basically he wanted to check us out, but it was impossible to discuss any actual problem with him." Consequently, the working group distributed letters to all the employees of the Labour Exchange in a surprise action. Panagoulis: "With some ten comrades we went into the JobCenter and handed out a letter to almost every employee, in total about 300 copies. Without any comment, we put them onto their tables or shoved them through underneath their office doors." The letter, written in a respectful and courteous intonation, encouraged the staff to treat the unemployed respectfully and refrain from applying disadvantageous measures. Furthermore, the employees were asked to get into contact with the FAU, anonymously or not, in cases of dubious internal regulations which were not intended for the public to become aware of, or just to exchange viewpoints.
It became quickly apparent that the Labour Exchange was not really pleased with the stiff-necked syndicalists: not only did none of the employees respond to the letter, also the director was pissed off by the surprise action. "We were handing out leaflets when he passed us by, uttering that our little action had not exactly been a nice thing to do", Marie Krieg recalls. "Next thing we saw were two cops approaching. They asked for our documents and made it seem like we had violated some laws, committing vile gossip or the likes. Next came a letter from the police department, informing us that an examination was being carried out and asking if there was anything we had to say and the usual blah blah just to intimidate us. Of course nothing ensued, except that since then the security watchmen in front of the JobCenter are obviously instructed to keep an eye on us and let us not distribute our pamphlets right in front of the entrance."
In spite of these attempts to discourage their efforts, the anti-Hartz-activists kept up their weekly presence in front of the JobCenter for more than a year, recently also turning to the even more notorious Neukölln Labour Exchange. Other activities included public lectures and discussions about the scandalous conditions and chances for resistance as well as articles for the FAU bimonthly "Direkte Aktion". At all times the syndicalists kept close contacts with activists from other groups and individuals working against social deterioration in order to exchange experiences and forge alliances. Very gradually, the working group grew in numbers and now comprises of five regulars and two to three persons showing up every now and then.
One point of culmination was the before mentioned day of action in front of Neukölln JobCenter on April 11th. The aim was to confront the JobCenter with critique right at its gates and inform the public about its methods. During the opening hours, the Job Center's visitors and employees could hardly miss the protestors, which made their reason for being there clear via megaphone, a big banner, leaflets and discussions. Furthermore, the visitors where encouraged to rate their case workers by awarding them marks, according to their competence and behaviour. One important aim was to drag the perpetretors behind the desks out of their anonymity, so detailed accounts of typical cases of ill treatment were given on the leaflets as well as to the media via fact sheets issued beforehand.
Asked to estimate the day of action's success, FAU Berlin member Alexander Panagoulis reveals contentment and frustration at the same time. "The participation of FAU members and the 'usual suspects', that is social activists from different groups, was great. We are also very happy about the fact that we made it into the media, with two newspapers and one local TV station reporting. What was frustrating was the ignorance on the part of the unemployed themselves. Many of them rushed by, ignoring us or just grabbing our leaflets without even considering joining our protest." Marie Krieg agrees: "They just don't seem to care enough. Whether it is scepticism in being confronted with radicals like us, whether they have no hopes or whether they are just too lazy, I can't tell."
Both Marie and Alexander feel pretty much disheartened by the fact that the unemployed offer resistance against their situation almost exclusively on an individual level, if at all, but hardly ever collectively. Alexander Panagoulis: "They do come to our office to seek advice alright. We are obviously something like a service institution for them. But then they go home and continue with their battles against the JobCenter on their own. In times of an ever intensifying witch hunt against unemployed by politicians and vast parts of the media, individual sneaking through is definitely not enough to stop the attacks against everything which is social."
Gerd Fischer on the contrary is far from displaying such defeatism: "We definitely have achieved something since we started our working group. We cannot measure to which extent our consultations and pamphlets affect the situation, but I suppose just the fact that there are folks keeping a close eye on the Labour Exchange has an encouraging effect on the unemployed. And the officials know that somebody is watching them. Besides, we do work the authorities should be doing: assessing the effects of the new laws, doing evaluation right at the base. Therefore we know what is going on and can contradict the politicians who claim everything goes through smoothly."
Marie Krieg agrees: "We would have no idea about how bad the situation actually is if we didn't speak with so many people affected, be it while standing in front of the Labour Exchange, be it within the scope of our weekly public meetings or through our alliances with other groups and individuals working on the same topic."
The three actvists however agree in one point: since the Anti-Hartz-AG was started and managed to acquire solid competence, FAU Berlin has sharpened its profile and is now perceived much more than beforehand as a radical yet reasonable actor in the local political scene, creating a serious option for those who want to become involved in social activities.
"Keeping up a public working group that gets together regularly in addition to being present in front of the Labour Exchange for months on end is definitely a way anarcho-syndicalists can interfere with current social affairs even in meagre times in terms of numbers of members and activists", Gerd Fischer estimates. "As usual, persistence is the key."
Anti-Hartz-AG of FAU Berlin Strassburger Straße 38, D-10405 Berlin www.fau.org/ortsgruppen/berlin contact: [email protected]