Interview with a German union organiser - Prol-position

A critical interview with a paid organiser of the German ver.di union about their organising work in the security industry.

Submitted by Steven. on August 14, 2009

"New Labor - New Unions" 1 Critique on Organizing, Part Two

(Former) left radicals and unions work together – not only in political alliances, e.g. when organizing certain campaigns (clean clothes, campaigns for global social rights etc.). In wildcat #78 we explained and criticized the "organizing"-approach which has created illusions concerning a "new type of union". The illusions prevail mainly amongst those lefties who got engaged in the debate about 'precarity' during the last years. If we start from the general critique of unions as organizations of representation of workers then we have to state that 'organizing' is not better than the traditional union work, but rather its continuation. 'Organizing' certainly does not stand for a rupture neither with the traditional claim to represent and nor with social partnership.

This kind of critique remains without impact as long as there aren't any current examples of workers' autonomy at hand. On this background any initiative 'within the unions' seems to be better than nothing. Confronted with the usual superficial criticism of unions – which only questions the bureaucratic, slow-moving and un-spontaneous apparatus – the "organizing" promises free spaces for new forms of actions.

It is surprising that after a very short time a gulf has opened between the way "organizing" is presented in the public and how the organizers perceive their own reality. A high rate of people leaving that job indicates that they notice and feel the contradictions they got into. The reason these contradictions have not yet been articulated, may be the fact that the political engagement with "work" is a relative novelty for this part of the left. Within the realm of their precarious jobs in the service sector these lefties had very little experience of the mechanisms of representation of the unions. Self-chosen individualized 'precarity' does not allow any perspective of collective activities.

How do "organizers" react when confronted with the contradiction that on one hand they do a job, which aims at collective activity, but on the other hand they have to put up with working conditions, which they themselves describe as precarious, and "neoliberal"? At first they react individually: they either quit or make a step up the ladder. The mechanisms of selection work well: most of the people quit – and some of them experience this as a (result of) personal incapability – others become "lead organizers", meaning they become bosses. Parallels to jobs with similar characteristics in other social sectors are obvious (see the article "Working for the Job center?" in Wildcat #79). Meanwhile first steps of a collective recapitulation of the individualized job situation have been made and seeds of self-organization have emerged. A critique of the principle "union" will develop once the (former) organizers take their roles as agents seriously. Let's see how things continue and how we can support this process. We made the following interview with A., who worked for the ver.di (service sector union) organizing-project in the security sector for a year.



Before you took the job with ver.di, did you deal with the question of your "material reproduction" politically?

For me politics in general took part outside of wage labor. That might be due to the kind of jobs I used to do, most of them in the social sector, always on time-limited contracts. Because if I know that I will leave the job within the next half a year, why should I get engaged in a committed way? But the whole topic was never completely alien to me. Unlike most of the radical lefties I come from a rather "workers' background" family-wise. Most of the radical left don't know much about it, e.g. they don't know what it means to study and to have to sustain yourself financially at the same time.

[b] Did the offer of the union come at a time when the question of wage labor was on your political agenda? Or was it more that they made an interesting offer and you needed a job anyway?

Both. Our group Hamburg Umsonst (Hamburg For Free) and other groups organized the Hamburg Euromayday. The issue of "precarious work" was in the center of this action. In the course of this process we debated the historical experiences of militant inquiry and organizing. In this regard I thought it was interesting to be active in a sector where precarious workers are employed under bad conditions and where only minor forms of organizing exist. I took the job as a chance to experiment and see what the union offers in these sectors. And I actually needed a new job at the time, which came in handy.

What was your work contract like?

Ver.di has not hired people directly for a while now. We did not have a contract with ver.di, but a "contract for work and services" with the ver.di subsidiary "ver.di-innotec". I heard that the works council of the ver.di employees was against this set-up, because it attacks the working-conditions of the union employees. But what could we have done about it? At first the project was scheduled for a period of six months – this was the duration of the contract. The official work content was rather vaguely defined: "Organizing of security guards in Hamburg". The initial monthly remuneration was fixed at 2,000 Euros. But the team – which had formed before the contracts were officially agreed - did not want to do the work for that money. Finally we agreed on 2,200 Euros – plus six weeks of annual holiday and a standard weekly working time of 40 hours. I think the annual holiday was fixed in the contract while the limitation of the weekly working hours was guaranteed verbally. Particularly the fear of exceeding working-times was a problem for many, although all in all it was clear that it was impossible to define and limit the boundaries of this type of work. The flexibility – meaning having to work at the weekends or in the evening every now and then – did not bother anyone too much.

How did your working-day look like?

On average we were out with the security guards half of the working time, the other half we were in the ver.di office. We had team assemblies, meetings of activists, appointments with individual workers or qualification courses, e.g. in order to learn about the labor law. We didn't know much about the legal framework before this.

Please describe a typical working week.

On Monday usually we had a team assembly. We first re-assessed the last week and then planned the coming working week, e.g. prepare a public action. How many people have to come to the action in order to make it a success? Then everyone made themselves an individual plan for the week and talked this through with the team-leader. The team-leader might give some additional tasks in some cases and she noted down each individual plan for herself. The following week she would draw a balance – for the whole team, but also for each one of us individually. This could result in quite a pressure. Sometimes directly, and in some cases loudly by the team-leader, but pressure was also built up amongst ourselves. Even if you do not want it: pressure builds up once you see that others always recruit new people but you don't! In this case a kind of latent rivalry can develop, which at the end of the day is wanted. In certain ways the internal dynamics of organizing work is like that: the carrot is always put a little too far ahead, so that you cannot reach it. When it comes to the outer dynamics and the political aims of the campaign it works exactly the opposite way: the carrot is hung so low that even the smallest can get it.

Did you have to fear any sanctions in case you did not meet the target?

No, not in that sense. Sometimes a little shouting, but that was it. Well, it could happen that it turned out that you are not really made for certain tasks, then a solution had to be found in "mutual agreement", something you could do instead.

Did a division of labor exist within the team?

Yes, given that we partly worked separate from each other. Everyone arranged a chart on "their" main contact persons. This chart you partly took over from your predecessor, partly you re-worked it continually yourself. Your weekly plan might consist of the task to get at least 20 of your main contacts to the next action. Or it could mean that people with a 2nd-ranking mobilize fellow workers themselves.

What kind of "ranking" are you talking about?

Every contact is put into a chart and is then evaluated. 1st-rating means that it is a "top leader", who is highly motivated, can work independently and can agitate people, a kind of alpha-animal. 2nd-ranking are people who you can rely on, but who haven't got any leading skills. From 3rd-ranking onwards it became increasingly uninteresting for us. 5th-ranking are people who work actively against us, who are on the side of the company. One aim was of course to improve the ranking continuously, to turn a "2nd" into a "1st". It happened that people slid down the ranking-ladder, then you had to explain to the team, why a "2nd", who had always been a regular on the meetings, suddenly did not take part anymore.

Did the "top-leaders" demand to become part of the "organizing team"?

No. Only towards the end it became clear that the project was running out and that some kind of "self-sustainable" structures were required. We contacted the top-leaders and gave them a methodical training. We slowly handed the project over to them. But their own attitude was not a demanding one.

What kind of function did the team-leader have?

The team/project leader had the function of an instructor… a teacher. She was supposed to teach us how to "organize" methodically. We were supposed to learn from her how to do things and it was then up to us to do it well or badly, depending on our "personal capabilities".

Did the project leader give you space to act like you wanted or did she take part in all meetings?

She was always present. And in the end it was she who made the final decisions. Organizing does not mean autonomy to decide. Each work step we did was discussed in the meeting. And like in most of the working relations: a team is not just a team, but there is a boss and the boss finally decides what to do.

What was the cooperation with the collective contract commission (Tarifkommission) responsible for the security sector like? Who mediated between your organizing team and the commission?

We had an "activist meeting" which met once a month. The collective contract commission on the other hand consisted of people who usually form such a body: works council members and professional union reps. Before our project started they had already organized themselves in a "Working Group Security". We tried to shift the balance in favor of the "activist meeting", which would have diminished the influence of the "Working Group", meaning the works council members. To us the "activist meeting" seemed to be the legitimate body of the rank-and-file members, and therefore should decide how to go about the collective contracts. Actually a lot of security guards were unhappy with the work of "their" works council members. This meant that we discussed the position of the collective contract commission during the "activist meetings". 2 Apart from the project leader and the collective contract commission, did you have to deal with any other bodies of the union structure?

No, we were not integrated in the union structure; we were rather "free floating". I had the feeling that we had our team, our two rooms and that we do our thing. But the stuff we were doing was mediated on a different level. We were always a bit detached; we never went to the official union rep meetings. A sort of detached playing field…

Did this playing field have defined borders?

Yes, e.g. when the issue of a more confrontational action against single companies came up. In those cases every leaflet had to be given the legal and political blessing from the ver.di headquarters in Berlin. Then you noticed: "Right, here we actually reached a boundary". At this point they clearly indicated the limits of our activities. But I wouldn't say that it was a clear "rupture" between the officials and us – there was no protest, no "upheaval" from our side. We didn't discuss collectively about how to deal with this situation. When we talked about the autonomy of the team, then we talked about autonomy within the framework of the organizing-model.

You interviewed security guards about their problems and needs. Would it have been possible that the outcome – the mentioned problems and needs – could not have been turned into official demands for the next collective bargaining? Meaning: To which extend were the content of the questions and the interview process pre-defined?

I have to say, apart from the core aim concerning the collective contract the activists had the freedom to say what was important to them and to put it into practice. The issues could be simple daily problems, which might have been completely irrelevant from the union's point of view. Only because of the fact that someone works somewhere does not mean that they come up with the important demands, important at least from our perspective. Anyhow, the demands are justified, of course. We tried to take up these demands and to make them become an issue in the collective contract negotiations. But honestly, we did not have the clout to enforce them; the relation of power was not in our favor. No doubt, the new collective contract and a wage rise were of central importance – for the union, and for the security guards, as well. Too much work for too little money, that was the main problem mentioned. In addition to that people often complained about repression at the workplace and a generally worker-hostile environment in the security sector. We took this issue up, e.g. during the campaign with security guards employed in commuter trains (S-Bahn). 3 Did you see yourself as a kind of "service provider" or did you act as your political self, applying your political views – for example by criticizing the function of security guards?

The activists who were up for talking to us were the kind of people who had a critical opinion regarding their job anyway. Their work is a job to them, which pays the bills and which can be done in different shades of obedience to the official rule. For example we asked people about their opinion and feelings regarding their work, people of whom we knew that they had previously worked as security guards in a detention prison. They were not anti-immigrant, but they did not really reflect their job either, they rather had a neutral attitude of "doing a job". Occasionally there have been people taking part in the activist meeting who displayed right-wing ideas. We then raised this issue. It wasn't always a contradiction to have racist ideas and to feel the need for union organizing at the same time.

Did the activists (the organizers and active workers) see the organizing-project as a kind of "democratic promise", which would give them the right to negotiate (the collective contract) themselves?

Maybe some of them perceived it that way, but most of them saw hardly anything new in the organizing-project. Up to that point a lot of them didn't have any experience of union work. Others had previously worked in, for example, metal factories where they had dealt with similar union structures. No, I couldn't say that they saw a kind of right to claim involvement in the decision-making. Most of them came to the meetings to wait and see. It was new to them to sit in a room with 30 people and to discuss in a structured manner together. Often we had to introduce such kinds of ideas, I mean we had to introduce them practically, we had to facilitate the discussion etc.

But what kind of motivation did the workers have to participate in the activist meetings?

They wanted to meet work mates and talk about their job... – and, if necessary, they wanted to find a new job there, e.g. because they had just been kicked out from somewhere else. This actually happened. 4 Apart from that they had a fairly good idea of what they wanted or didn't want, and they were able to articulate that clearly.

What are the positive experiences you draw from your collaboration in the organizing project?

Without a doubt it was an exciting work. I got in touch with these sectors. In my daily life I normally would not get in touch with them. This is very interesting. First of all this is a valuable personal experience. Politically I learned that it is possible to successfully organize people, even in sectors where people are hardly organized, where they work very isolated from each other and where they are "invisible". On another level my picture of the union has changed. Within the union there are some people who do a mighty job, but they are isolated, as well. But they do exist.

Why did you quit? What were the negative experiences?

For a while, before I quit, I had been feeling rather uncomfortable about the organizing concept, e.g. about the very neoliberal character of my working conditions and of the way we worked. Meaning the evaluation and control of targets, the listing of achieved figures etc. A lot of elements you usually find in normal business, e.g. the way that team-work is structured or how success is controlled. For me and also for others this resulted in a lot of stress. How do I define success? In your normal political work there are hardly any indicators or parameters for "success". We should not forget that we talk about wage work here, so you have to deal with the fact that people are personally held responsible for success or failure and that pressure is built up. After a while, if you do not perform accordingly, you are singled out and sooner or later you get the sack. And your money to make ends meet depends on this job. They do burn people out – after one year of employment I was already the senior. The pressure was passed on down the ladder, the hierarchy existed within our group. Often it was difficult to discuss even within the team, because the project leader was always present – after all she was part of the team. I have a very critical view on that issue: a method is presented as the right one – if anything goes wrong then it must be the failure of performing person. The person has failed to put the method into practice. With some methods you are not able to do the right or wrong thing, the method itself is wrong. This is how I see the organizing approach. This is a method which I don't want to see as part of the union.


Additional Notes

- "In cooperation with the employees of the union SEIU we created the professional position 'apprentice organizer', as the initial stage of an official employment category. Only after one year of apprenticeship people can become an organizer and permanent employees of the union. At least half of the hired people did not succeed in finishing the training. Some of them left the union voluntarily, because they could not get used to the working hours and the workload. Others were asked to leave the program, because they could not meet the demands put forward by the new work" – Tom Woodruff in Peter Bremme: Never work alone, Organizing – ein Zukunftsmodell für Gewerkschaften (A future model for the unions). Hamburg, VSA, 2007, S. 101.

- "Our benchmarks: ver.di-innotec creates stable bridges for humane work relations, bridges between: innovation and humanitarianism, technology and human beings, science and practical activities, company and employees' representation, those who seek and those who give advice, share holders and society. In a work-sphere which is transformed by innovation, technology and new work techniques, ver.di-innotec advocates for security, participation, employment, professional qualification, sustainability, protection of personal rights, increase of individual chances and strengthening of gender democracy."

Text taken from Prol-Position

  • 1Original title "New Labor" – "New Gewerkschaft"
  • 2 Note on the conflict with the collective contract commission (CCC): "The activists (organizers and active workers) refused a draft for a collective contract, which the CCC initially wanted to accept. Inside the union this caused a lot of turmoil and a debate whether the refusal of the activists should be recognized. A lot of union officials – amongst them our project-leader – were very concerned about the possibility that the employers' association would suspend the negotiations with ver.di and continue the process with the Christian Union instead. This was the presented threat in case of defeat – defeat not only regarding the collective bargaining, but also regarding its possible outcome: the end of the acceptance and continuation of our project by the union. Finally we – the activists – succeeded and managed to gain a few cents wage hike. Some members of the CCC took part in an activist meeting for the first time just as the final contract was about to be signed. They had realized that they had to attend the meeting – and be it only in order to present the outcome of their negotiations in the possibly best way."
  • 3 Conflict in the commuter trains (S-Bahn): "In response to the cut of certain bonuses we did some actions which usually do not belong to the union's repertoire, e.g. we leafleted inside the commuter trains, something which officially you are not allowed to do and which caused a lot of disgruntlement on the side of the employer towards the union ver.di. After this action we had to get the blessing from the upper hierarchy, be it for an action or leaflet."
  • 4 On a conflict due to works council election: "In one of the companies, people tried to set up a works council and they all got the sack. We tried to question the dismissals in legal terms and we tried to put pressure on the security company by organizing public actions. These actions also targeted the client companies of the security firm. In this case we succeeded, because the works council of one of the client companies – a big publishing house – had a strong position. Well, we have to add that the security company finally accepted the works council election, but undermined our efforts by setting up their own list of candidates. In the end their ballot list was more successful than the ver.di list. Some dismissals were withdrawn, some people left the company with severance pay."