GERMANY'S NEW IDENTITY - A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS
By David Bacon
FRANKFURT, GERMANY ( 3/28/00) - Twenty-six years ago, a young
theology student, Manuel Campos, fled Portugal one step ahead of the
police. As the Salazar, and then Caetano, dictatorships
crumbled, he and
other student activists were swept up in a broad movement of religious
leaders, unionists, political militants and military reformers which
eventually brought fascism crashing down.
But just before it fell, Campos discovered his name on a list
people about to be arrested. A priest who supported the resistance
for a ticket out of the country. And Campos suddenly found himself
Germany, a young man with no prospects, few skills, and a head filled with
He arrived at the end of a long wave of immigration, promoted by
employers who advertised for contract workers throughout southern Europe.
Asylum seekers like Campos were part of the mix, welcomed at a time when
Germany's labor supply was low, and the need for educated workers high.
He began life in exile helping Catholic fathers set up missions in
the new Portuguese immigrant communities, which were just starting to
He spent a few months working in an auto plant. "I saw the
with immigrants like myself," he remembers. "The job was
so hard and
repetitive that I still marvel at the ability of people to come to work
"You see," he explains, "when I came here there was nothing
We had no idea what we were getting into. We had either fled our
like me, a step ahead of the police, or we were here looking for a way to
send enough money home so that our families would survive. Lots of
both reasons for being here."
Campos didn't forget the experience. Today he heads a unique
department in the big German industrial union, IG Metall, where he
organizes immigrant workers and tries to build up their voice in the union
and workplace. He's obviously no longer young, but his hair is still
inky-black and his stocky body moves around his office with frenetic
energy. His fingers race through binders and piles of paper as he
mile a minute, looking for sheet after sheet of charts and numbers to back
up his points. Immigrants, he says, have had a big imp;act on IG
Campos tends to make speeches when he describes the work of his
department, but he has some justification for crowing. With its
Metall has fought with some of Germany's largest corporations to develop
unique agreements combining what in the U.S. would be affirmative action
with protection against discrimination and harassment.
Like their U.S. counterparts, German factories are hardly
Mahmut Aktaz, who came to Germany from Turkey when he was a
teenager, and went to work in the auto factories straight out of school,
says discrimination against immigrant workers is common. "I
started out as
a skilled worker, but to my foreman, I was just a foreigner. He
treat me fairly at all," Aktaz says. "Discrimination in
the plant is a
whole range of everyday things. Officially, they say it doesn't
that we can go into any job in the factory. But if you want to get
really skilled position, like a master mechanic, they discourage you.
though I'm a German citizen now, and I've taken on German nationality,
see me as a foreigner. They don't like it if I have a more skilled
better-paid job than many native Germans have."
Germany, like the U.S., has an overall federal law which forbids
discrimination. But Campos says the law doesn't really protect
workers, who are still referred to officially as foreigners. Until
was finally changed this year, the child of an immigrant, born in Germany,
was still ineligible for citizenship. "It's almost impossible
immigrants to file complaints and get them enforced," Campos charges.
court system is very conservative, and many judges are racists. When
someone says 'foreigner, get out!', judges call this free expression, and
don't see it as a form of discrimination. As a result, it's much
for workers to negotiate these agreements, which are then enforced by the
works council in the workplace."
Contracts between U.S. unions and employers often contain
anti-discrimination clauses, but they are much more limited. IG
gotten four major German corporations, including Volkswagen, to adopt
stand-alone agreements covering a variety of discrimination issues.
outlaw discrimination or harassment based on immigrant status, along with
other forms of racial and sexual mistreatment. But they also go
to require the company to provide training to workers in unskilled jobs at
the bottom of the workforce, and then to actually hire them into new
Tests for the new jobs have been changed, because of accusations
that they were originally used as a barrier to keep immigrants from moving
up the ladder.
The anti-discrimination agreements also outlaw mobbing, a concept
that hardly exists in the U.S. In Germany, it's not uncommon for
be subjected to a special form of harassment designed to make them quit.
The contracts spell out specifically what mobbing means, give examples of
it, and make clear the company's responsibility and the procedures for
These agreements are enforced by the works councils. German unions
don't have locals that correspond to individual workplaces - that's the
function of the elected councils, which can include union members and
non-members alike. Works councils negotiate over most conditions and
rules in each workplace. Only wages and the hours of work (which in
Germany includes a 35-hour work week) are negotiated nationally, between
unions (like IG Metall) and the associations of employers in each industry
(auto, steel, etc.) In practice, the union tries to elect its
works councils as well, to give it a voice in negotiations with the
management of individual enterprises.
IG Metall has an organization in each city and region. In most of
them, workers have elected immigration commissions, which examine the
situation of immigrant workers. There are over 1000 such elected
commission members throughout Germany.
The commissions hold meetings, often in union halls or the meeting
rooms of the clubs and associations of various nationalities.
"We just had
a meeting in Hattingen for two days, involving Turks, Portuguese,
Spaniards, Italians and Yugoslavs, talking about the problem of job
training and qualification. This is becoming a crisis for us,"
says. "Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers are trapped
bottom in jobs which are likely to disappear."
According to Aktaz, "it's undeniable that IG Metall is trying to
stop the discrimination, not least because several officers of the union
now are foreign workers themselves. If a worker is prevented from
a better job, he or she can talk to a steward, and the odds are good that
the steward will be Turkish or Kurdish."
About 7.1 million of Germany's 80 million people are immigrants,
who make up about 2.1 million of its 34 million workers. In the
industry, which IG Metall represents, the percentage of immigrants is
slightly higher - about 11.5 percent.
Although IG Metall remains the largest single union in the world,
with 2.8 million members, its membership has been declining as industry
restructures - a common story among industrial unions throughout Europe
North America. Still, the number of immigrant members has remained
relatively constant - about 275,000 - and therefore their percentage in
membership has grown slightly.
It is a significant indication of the important role union
membership has played historically in immigrant life here. The first
of "foreign workers," who arrived in the early 1960s, had it the
They were called guestworkers, and worked under contract.
Mahmut Aktaz's father came in 1963 as a guestworker from Turkey.
"He was all alone back then," Aktaz says, recalling the
father gave of his life when he would come home to Turkey. Germany,
told his children, was a green country, with big factories, wide
and large cities. "But they didn't accept him," Aktaz
saying. "He didn't have his family with him, and he
didn't speak the
Seventeen years after his father took that first labor contract,
Mahmut Aktaz finally came himself, as a teenager with his mother and
family. He finished school in Germany, although he lost a year just
learning the language before he could complete his education.
"At first it
seemed great," he remembers. "But as I got into working
life, I realized
things weren't as good as they'd seemed."
Campos says life as an immigrant either defeats people or makes
them stronger. "When a worker is in a difficult situation, as
are, they have a choice," he says. "They can just leave,
or they can stay
and decide to fight. That choice makes a lot of us fighters. We have
worst jobs, and the lowest pay. The jobs that are disappearing the
belong to us. But we remain union members in much greater numbers
others because we've come to look at the union as our political
As a result, immigrants make up a much larger percentage of the
union's stewards than their percentage in the general membership.
Aktaz is one of them - a chief steward at Daimler Chrysler. Yet of
the 36,000 workers in his plant, only 2,500 are Turkish or Kurdish.
describes his experience as very contradictory. On the one hand,
discrimination is something he confronts every day. "It's
feel inside when people treat you a certain way. For example, if I
of my Turkish coworkers want to become a spokesperson for our group in the
factory, many of our German coworkers just would not vote for us."
Yet as steward, he believes he fights for the interests of all his
fellow workers, of whatever nationality, sometimes in the face of
considerable company hostility. "I've been a steward for seven
says. "I've been elected three times by my coworkers, and I've
their cause. But my foremen and supervisors don't like this one bit,
they make it clear they don't like it. They don't like the fact that
steward, because they don't like the union itself. But they
don't like the fact that I'm a Turkish shop steward."
In the plant Aktaz and his union take on problems that are familiar
to autoworkers all over the world - outsourcing, modular production, and
the erosion of job protections. "The changes taking place in
conditions are supposed to standardize the way we work, and develop new
forms of organization like teamwork," he says. "They've
instituted a pay
system that depends on performance now. All these things increase
profits of the company, but they don't do us any good. They just
work harder. The company tells us time after time that we have to
all this to make them more competitive, but I don't buy it. In this
capitalist system, if they make a profit of $100 million one year, the
year they want to double it. It just never stops."
IG Metall is a political home for another reason. In the last
decade, since the reunification of Germany, unemployment has soared,
particularly in the former German Democratic Republic, or east Germany.
And with rising unemployment, groups of young neo-Nazis have attacked, and
even burned, the hostels in which recently-arrived immigrants live.
Immigrants have been blamed for taking the jobs of native-born Germans.
IG Metall has participated in demonstrations to denounce these
actions. Every year the union mounts a campaign to coincide with the
International Day of Action Against Racism. Their large public
organized in coalition with the German Intercultural Council and the
Committee of Turks in Germany (the more progressive of the two national
"The danger to immigrants in Germany is constant - you feel it in
the streets every day," Aktaz declares. "And the reason is
that on the
political level, nothing is being done to counteract it. When the
neo-Nazis organized a march in Berlin last week, the judges allowed it.
That's a sign to me that you have to watch your back at every moment,
because it gives a sign to those people that what they're doing is
completely OK. To me, IG Metall is a better organization to be
than the political parties, especially around the issue of foreigners.
can't say the union is 100% behind Turkish workers, but it's a lot better
than anywhere else in German society."
Campos was one of many IG Metall members who went to Berlin to
demonstrate against the march. "I don't think Germany is about
fascist again," he says. "But these groups, although
they're small, are
very aggressive, and protected by the police. If there's no visible
opposition, it's a signal that hating immigrants is an acceptable part of
the political process."
Not all German labor is equally committed to defending immigrants
however. Even within IG Metall, immigrants see a problem in their
representation especially in the upper levels of the union. At its
congress, Campos' department introduced a resolution calling for the
representation of immigrant members on all union boards and committees.
Women already have such a rule, with a numerical quota. The
department didn't attach a specific number to its goal, however, since,
according to Campos, "we want the problem resolved politically, not
Other German unions still see immigrants as a threat. In Berlin
the federal government is building a new center for the city, with
government buildings. But German construction unions, for the first
are finding themselves locked out of the country's largest construction
project. Instead, the work is being performed by a network of
and subcontractors. At the bottom, the workforce primarily consists
immigrants recently arrived from the countries of Eastern Europe, where
unemployment is even higher, and wages much lower.
These workers, mostly from Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia,
Bosnia, Kosova and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, are almost all
undocumented. The border between Poland and Germany is like that
the U.S. and Mexico, without the racial aspect of the divide.
side, a worker can earn as much in an hour as the same person can earn in
day over there," says IG Metall cultural affairs director Kurt
wage wall, like the iron fence between Tijuana and San Diego, has replaced
the old brick wall which used to divide the east from the west in Berlin.
German sociologist Boy Leutje, who has made comparative studies of
labor in the U.S. and Germany, says that construction unions in both
countries confront the same choice. "Are they going to fight a
battle to keep immigrants out of their trade and their country, or are
going to see them as potential union members, and try to organize
Germany is only now beginning to see its immigrant population as
permanent residents, rather than foreign workers who will someday go home.
"My children were born here," Aktaz says. "My wife
and I feel as a family
that our future is going to be here in Germany."
For Campos, "what we've had here is a law for foreigners, and
that's what we're called. The concept of immigration, of Germany as
country of immigrants, doesn't exist. So we need an immigration law
instead, and not only one which sets out the conditions under which people
can immigrate, but one which also spells out the rights the government is
willing to guarantee us."
Campos clearly sees Germany as a country that will eventually
change its identity, it's own sense of who Germans are, and what it means
to be German. Outside of his union job, Campos is a musician and a
composer. When he sings the title song on his new CD, the words
audience that "People come in every color."
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