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Christmas on the picket lines

This holiday season is strike season. Fighting back against low wages and poor conditions, Berlin’s shop workers are hitting retailers where it hurts in a slow but steady battle.

Image for Christmas on the picket lines
Photo by Charlotte Eberwein

Fighting for more pay and better conditions, Berlin’s shop workers are planning to disrupt business during retail’s most lucrative season.

It’s a cold morning in November. The sun hasn’t come up yet and the H&M on Friedrichstraße won’t open its doors for another hour. But by 7am, more than 50 people have lined up on the sidewalk. Today is “Designer Day”, the most important day of the year for the Swedish retail giant Hennes & Mauritz. Clothes from Isabel Marant are on offer, and starting at 8am, excited label-hunters get a coloured armband and are admitted into the store at 15-minute intervals. The cash registers are burning hot.

Then, at 10am, a young woman in a blonde wig walks through the store. At the back near the fitting rooms, she casts off her fashionista disguise, pulls a megaphone out of her bag and begins shouting for a strike. Within minutes, the whole workforce is out on the street, handing out flyers and holding a banner calling for “better working conditions at H&M”.

Get ready to see this scene repeated a lot over the coming weeks because this year, the holiday season is strike season. In Germany’s retail sector, a slow but steady battle has been taking place between the employers and the employees. In one corner is the retailers’ association Handelsverband; in the other, the trade union ver.di.

The set-up

The retailers picked a fight at the beginning of this year when they unilaterally terminated collective bargaining wage agreements, or Tarifverträge. These agreements regulate the pay and working conditions for different kinds of jobs in each sector of the economy, including about half of the 3.2 million workers in the retail sector – two-thirds of them women, 40 percent working on part-time contracts.

The employers talk about “modernising” the contracts. While it’s true that the contracts include clauses covering elevator operators, even though these haven’t been around for several decades, the bosses’ main concern isn’t getting rid of anachronisms. “Modernisation” means creating new low wage groups for workers doing inventory: while starting wages now are just over €11 per hour, they want to sink them to €8.50. This could mean a wage cut of up to 25 percent for people working in businesses adhering to the collective pay agreement. Negotiations about a new contract have been going on for several months, but proceeding at a snail’s pace.

“We’re like David against Goliath,” says Martin Liedtke, “but we haven’t found a rock for our sling yet.” The 30-year-old knows a thing or two about Bible stories, since besides his job at the supermarket Kaufland in Oranienburg he also studies theology at the Humboldt University. He works 12 hours per week at about €12 an hour – just enough for a student to get by. About 70 percent of the personnel in his store is part-time.

“At a job interview, the boss will say that you can have 12 or 15 hours a week,” Liedtke explains. “The rest you can get from the Jobcenter.” Germany’s unemployment programme allows for Aufstocker: workers who earn so little that they still qualify for Hartz-IV welfare can get the state to pay the difference. In other words, the taxpayer is subsidising low wages to the tune of more than €1.5 billion a year. Is it any wonder that in the list of the 10 richest Germans, the top three spots belong to retailers? (That’s the Albrecht brothers from Aldi and Dieter Schwarz from Lidl.)

Liedtke has been a Betriebsrat (a member of the works council) for three years. So far, he has convinced half of the staff at his shop to join the trade union. He’s also seen plenty of support from the public, including fellow students, many of whom are happy to help disrupt revenue during the strike and generally cause chaos. “On a strike day, the line of shopping carts will stretch all the way back to the entrance,” he explains with a mischievous smile, “and lots of customers will abandon their items and leave.” During a strike at a different Kaufland location, student supporters had all their items rung up. Only when they saw the price did they exclaim: “€55? I can’t afford that! Thankfully there’s a strike today!” And they ran off.

Similar actions have taken place at IKEA in Lichtenberg, where a crowd blew whistles and marched all the way through the showroom, or at the Alexa shopping centre, where anonymous supporters threw flyers down from a balcony. But these aren’t car factories with 98 percent of the work force in a trade union – these are smaller outlets with very little tradition of organised labour. So the strikers need to be creative and reach out to the public.

Wage discrepancies between East and West are still an issue in retail. Nearly 25 years after the fall of the Wall, retail workers in eastern Germany still make about €1 less per hour than their colleagues in the West. The Thalia book chain, for example, continues to differentiate between salaries at the Gesundbrunnen Center (in the West) and the Schönhauser Arkaden (in the East, a single S-Bahn station away). Although H&M pays all its workers in Berlin the Western rate, Brandenburg employees earn less. Here, too, the trade union is demanding equal wages. The

Swedish empire

There are three different H&M stores within just 700 metres on Friedrichstraße, but only one, shop no. 680 at Friedrichstraße 79, has a works council. It is also the only one where employees refuse to work on Sundays. “We have been protesting against Sunday work since it was introduced in Berlin seven years ago,” says council president Jan Richter.

Berlin introduced shopping on eight Sundays a year back in 2006 – this year, retail workers were even expected to go in on the Sunday of the national elections. But this one shop has resisted. On one grey Sunday in October, its workers gathered to protest in front of their workplace. They brought coffee, cake and lots of flyers to convince customers not to go inside (where the tills would still be attended by strike breakers brought in from other stores). “No work on Sunday,” said a sign written in English.

Richter, a 34-year-old with sweeping hair and an absurdly long scarf, started the job at H&M more than 10 years ago while studying social sciences at the nearby Humboldt University. The father of a three-year-old daughter, he works on the sales floor about once a week – most of his job involves representing his colleagues against management. His Betriebsrat colleague Susi Mantel, who at 32 sports darker clothes and a few austere tattoos, got into retail four years ago when she couldn’t find a decent job after studying architecture. “All I was offered were badly paid internships,” she remembers, “so I took a full-time job at H&M in order to have a steady income, even if I didn’t think I would stay there for long.”

If you don’t want to work on a Sunday, then you shouldn’t want to shop for underpants on a Sunday either.

“A sector with a majority of women is the first to be attacked,” says Richter about the employers’ proposals to ‘modernise’ the contracts. But they aren’t putting up with it: In the last 10 years, more than 50 of the 60 workers in their store have joined the trade union, making it the best organised of the 28 H&M stores in Berlin.

They also have the most creative actions. Recently, during the middle of the day, everyone stopped working and went outside. When strike breakers were brought in to re-open the shop, everyone went right back inside. This happened several times – a so-called “in-and-out strike” that forces the company to pay for two staffs at once. It shows that these union activists who cut their teeth in the students’ movement brought some of the audaciousness of youth protests into the workforce.

Yet Richter, Mantel and their small band of workers are fighting against a Swedish empire which made almost €2 billion in profits (on almost €15 billion of revenue) last year. “They have a whole scab army,” Richter explains, referring to salespeople who have been hired only to work in shops during the strike. Workers from half a dozen shops will come out on a strike day, about 70 in total. “A friend of a colleague got a job at H&M and the company always had him picked up from home in a taxi,” Mantel says. “Only later was he embarrassed to learn that he was being used to weaken the strike by keeping the shops open.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of people at H&M and other companies willing to break the strike, either because they’re scared of their supervisors or simply because they desperately need the money from an extra hour of work.

A giant first-aid station

Amazon might not have any shops to protest in front of, but they’re feeling the dissatisfaction of their workers nonetheless. Christian name changed) has just started to work in the brand-new logistics centre in Brieselang, located in Brandenburg just past Spandau and Falkensee. About 800 people have been hired to work until January 1 – but only a small fraction will be allowed to continue on past the holidays. “This is really stressful work,” the 30-yearold explains, “since you have to meet a quota every single day.” One of the first things he noticed was a giant first aid station for workers who passed out during their full day treks through the endless rows of shelves. Yet Amazon refuses to pay according to the collective agreement: the starting wage at the logistics centre is €9.65 an hour, where the agreement says it should be almost €2 more.

The online retailer has been facing months of strikes at its warehouses in Leipzig and in Bad Hersfeld in Hesse (there’s no word yet about strikes in Brieselang). As a response to these first strikes, in July the company decided to start paying holiday bonuses of €400-600 – a much lower rate than industry standards. The company is threatening to close five of its eight logistics centres in Germany and open new ones in Poland and the Czech Republic to serve Germany. It’s not clear, however, how serious these threats are, since the larger distances could greatly increase shipping times to German customers. Strikes might seriously disrupt sales, and a victory by the workers could potentially unravel Amazon’s whole business model, based on low wages and short-term contracts.

Strike karma

The strikes in the retail sector will still be a long haul. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this doesn’t affect you. “If you don’t want to work on a Sunday, then you shouldn’t want to shop for underpants on a Sunday either,” says Richter. And it’s a snowball effect: if retail workers start having to work on Sundays, he cautions, daycare centres will have to be open then too. And pretty soon Sunday will be gone for everyone. “This is why we need solidarity across the different sectors.”

Whatever you do, try not to cross a picket line. Since the strikes, at least so far, have only been taking place in individual stores on individual days, you can always get more or less the same goods in a different store or, if it absolutely has to be that store, then on a different day. “Doing the right thing is good for your karma,” Mantel says, “especially at Christmas time.” Besides, standing arm-in-arm with striking workers is far more fun than the stress of holiday shopping!  

What do the employers want?

  • A new low-wage category of positions, paid €8.50 per hour
  • Greater flexibility in scheduling shifts
  • Even more part-time contracts

What do the employees want?

  • €1 more per hour
  • Equal wages in West and East
  • Protection of current overtime pay and bonuses

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.