In his second report from the new international wave of class struggle, Paul Inglis talks to trade unionists involved in a struggle by Romanian agricultural workers in Germany.
In the period between my first interview and this one, the tempo of international class conflict has picked up with astonishing vigour. Looking back at the first days of Summer 2020, it would be easy to assume that no lockdown had actually taken place. Indeed it’s as if the long string of popular explosions that concluded the 2010’s has simply continued on like nothing happened, the global wave of anti-police protests being but the latest phase of the new insurrections. And indeed, this is exactly what the anti-police movement is. The Sudanese revolution, the riots in Catalunya and the Chilean general strike have now been joined by the Minneapolis uprising.
But they have not only been joined by Minneapolis. Mere days after news of his murder broke, George Floyd’s name was on the lips of street militants in places as varied as Guadalajara, Istanbul, Athens and Bristol. In every protest, calls of justice for Floyd have been mixed with calls of justice for local martyrs – like Giovanni Lopez, tortured and killed while in Mexican police custody, or Bariş Çakan, a Kurdish youth murdered by Turkish fascists for listening to Kurdish music.
It is clear that COVID-19 has done nothing to arrest the vast swell of working class fury that is breaking out all over the planet in diverse combinations of strikes, riots and uprisings. If anything, the pandemic has only intensified this process, throwing millions into unemployment and dragging forward a long overdue economic crisis. Direct action, the struggle against racism, the impact of the pandemic – all these aspects of the world struggle are the shared themes of each new outbreak, and they combine alike in the subject of today’s interview: The wildcat strike at Bornheim, Germany.
About half an hour by bike from Bonn, Borrnheim is a town whose industry is based on agriculture, primarily the growing of asparagus. It was at just such a farm on 15 May that around two hundred Romanian fruit and veg pickers walked off the job, refusing to return to work until their demands were met. To find out why, and what happened next, I spoke to Robin, a comrade from the Bonn branch of the Freie ArbeiterInnen Union (FAU), a grassroots anarcho-syndicalist union that came to play a significant part in the events at Bornheim.
They began with Erdbeer-und Spargelhof Ritter (ESR), a Bornheim-based company that hires Eastern European workers to harvest asparagus and strawberries. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown however, this year’s orders of asparagus from restaurants have collapsed, sending ESR into insolvency. Faced with the imminent prospect of no pay for the season’s work, the workers immediately opted to strike, demanding payment for the work they had done. At this point a lawyers’ office, Schulte-Beckhausen, which had taken charge of the company following insolvency, threatened to fire the workers and evict them from company housing, despite a lack of any written termination of either the employment or housing contracts. With this the strike took up a second demand: either continuing contracts of employment at Bornheim, new jobs at another company, or money for workers to return home to Romania.
It was just after the strike began that the FAU got involved. On hearing news of it on the radio, members of the FAU’s Bonn branch were quick to journey to Bornheim and find out how they could support the striking workers. Having listened to plenty of discussions about how to reach and organise migrant workers in my time on the left, I was particularly keen to ask Robin about the crucial tasks of communication and building up bonds of trust between the union and the workers. Initially, bridging the language gap presented a complicated challenge. But, through talking to the workers who spoke some English and German, and by mobilising interpreters from the FAU and from the wider left, communication was established. Robin stressed that the most important part in making those first few links with the workers was listening to their issues – the FAU did not just show up unannounced and impose their own ideas about how the strike should be organised, but rather heard the strikers’ demands and their ideas about how to proceed in the struggle and respected them. If the FAU members had disagreements, they explained their point of view in a comradely manner, but regardless helped the workers in whatever actions they decided on.
I was quite curious to know how the FAU brought its own politics to these discussions. Readers with an interest in the history of anarchism may know something of the original Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands (FAUD), or of the theorist Rudolf Rocker, who wrote the union’s platform. Robin told me how the modern FAU stands firmly in the anarcho-syndicalist tradition of the FAUD, and how it was these principles that guided their actions at Bornheim. But this did not mean that the FAU went to the workers demanding they read this or that text or expecting them to be immediately on board with anarcho-syndicalism. Instead of any abstract sloganeering, FAU members consistently explained their principles as they related to the concrete issues of the strike. Direct democratic decision making, a stress on direct action, and a lack of paid officials – it was principles like these that appealed strongly to the rank-and-file militants at Bornheim. But most of all, the FAU showed what their ideas meant by sticking by the striking workers through the whole of their dispute. As ever, solidarity is the principle that underpins all the others.
The success of this process of dialogue can quickly be gauged from a glance at the photos of the strike demonstrations, which show the red and black flags held proudly aloft by Romanian workers. The extent of the trust built up between the union and the workers is further demonstrated by the fact that the strike allowed the FAU to collectively represent it to management. This also enabled the FAU to gain access to the workers’ accommodation and inspect their living conditions. Here it should be pointed out that the housing provided by ESR can barely be called housing, taking the form of a container warehouse wedged between a cemetery and a sewage plant. A video from FAU Bonn’s YouTube account shows the squalid conditions of these container-houses. Health and safety standards were non-existent on ESR premises, with rotten food, no fire extinguishers, no cleaning services, and, in contravention of the German government’s pandemic regulation, no personal protective equipment provided to the workers. Robin told me of how the only masks the workers got came from a local bus driver who felt sorry for his passengers and bought masks with his own money. In this we see the racism of companies like ESR, who think that they can get away with subjecting migrant labourers to callous, criminal working and living conditions.
In addition to representation, FAU Bonn further supported the strike via a wide variety of actions, including: providing legal advice, collecting donations, supplying food, organising demonstrations, hiring minibuses for transport, publicising the strikers’ cause, guarding the workers’ housing to block evictions, contacting other companies to find new jobs for the workers, organising a delegation to the Romanian consulate to ask for funds for workers to travel home, and, when the Romanian government inevitably did not commit to this, raising the funds for this from supporters of the strike.
All of these actions attest not only to the sheer energy of the FAU but also to the comprehensive manner in which they approached their organising work. This is the depth of commitment that is essential for the organisation of migrant workers – not just a token commitment to the unity of the working class or a quick condemnation of the racist practices of employers, but a dedicated, full-scale operation. It’s clear that FAU Bonn threw everything they had into this strike, and it is only by doing this that they won the support and confidence of the Bornheim workers.
After learning about the practice of the strike, I was eager to find out what was gained and if there were any defeats. Robin explained how Bornheim presented a mix of results. On the one hand, only partial victories were won in regard to the payment of owed wages. Payments were eventually conceded to some of the workers on two occasions after the strike began, but even then the amounts were variable, some getting 500 euros and others 50. To make matters worse, other workers received no payment at all. On top of all this, the FAU’s lawyers note none of the sums received by those who were eventually paid were actually above German minimum wage. The pay issue is not settled, however, as the FAU’s lawyers are currently suing ESR and Schulte-Beckhausen over the unpaid wages. The results of this legal battle will come through in the next few months, so there is still a chance for a more substantial victory on pay.
A much more complete and immediate success emerged from the second demand of the strike. In the end, not a single person was made homeless by Schulte-Beckhausen. The FAU were able to help every striking worker either find a new job or get back home to Romania. Robin was particularly pleased to describe the confidence with which those Romanian workers who opted to find renewed employment in Germany now approached jobhunting. On receiving an offer, the workers would send a delegation of representatives to inspect the workplace conditions, and if they were not to the liking of the workers, they refused and considered another offer! This is a wonderful proof of the psychological boost brought by having a fighting union at your back. Alone, workers are forced to beg for work and accept whatever they are given, but together, with collective security and support, workers don’t need to just accept the first gig that rolls by. They can demand better and make it so.
Of course, the character of the dispute means that just when the FAU has established a presence among the workers of the ESR farm, the workforce has been entirely dispersed. This is an unfortunate consequence of the nature of seasonal labour, and it poses a central challenge to organisers in this industry. One unique characteristic of this particular case, though, is that the continuing legal battle over the workers’ wages is sure to keep FAU Bonn in contact with the Romanian workers for the foreseeable future. Regardless, it will be essential that the union keeps up contact with their new Romanian comrades as they go on to new jobs. Indeed, the Romanian workers who have moved to other farms in Germany have been put in contact with the relevant local FAU branches, and contact is being maintained with those workers who have returned to Romania, workers who are likely to come back for the next harvest. The key task for the FAU now is strengthening the links forged at Bornheim in preparation for next time.
I finished by asking Robin how workers in Scotland could show support to the FAU and keep up to date with further developments. Given the legal challenge being mounted by the FAU, donations would be appreciated. Their bank details are:
Account name: Allgemeines Syndikat Bonn
International Bank Account Number: DE83 3705 0198 1934 6691 59
Bank Identifier Code: COLS DE 33 XXX
And for further updates, their social media accounts are: