David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
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 secret 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 paid for a ticket out of the country. And Campos suddenly found himself in Germany, a young man with no prospects, few skills, and a head filled with radical ideas.

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 grow. He spent a few months working in an auto plant. "I saw the lines filled 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 every day.

"You see," he explains, "when I came here there was nothing for us. We had no idea what we were getting into. We had either fled our countries 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 us had 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 talks a 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 Metall.

Campos tends to make speeches when he describes the work of his department, but he has some justification for crowing. With its help, IG 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 discrimination-free.

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 didn't treat me fairly at all," Aktaz says. "Discrimination in the plant is a whole range of everyday things. Officially, they say it doesn't exist, that we can go into any job in the factory. But if you want to get into a really skilled position, like a master mechanic, they discourage you. Even though I'm a German citizen now, and I've taken on German nationality, they see me as a foreigner. They don't like it if I have a more skilled and 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 immigrant workers, who are still referred to officially as foreigners. Until the law was finally changed this year, the child of an immigrant, born in Germany, was still ineligible for citizenship. "It's almost impossible for immigrants to file complaints and get them enforced," Campos charges. "The 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 asa form of discrimination. As a result, it's much better 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 Metall has gotten four major German corporations, including Volkswagen, to adopt stand-alone agreements covering a variety of discrimination issues. They outlaw discrimination or harassment based on immigrant status, along with other forms of racial and sexual mistreatment. But they also go further, 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 positions.

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 people to 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 stopping it.

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 work 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 members to 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," Campos says. "Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers are trapped at the 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 getting 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 metal 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 and North America. Still, the number of immigrant members has remained relatively constant - about 275,000 - and therefore their percentage in the membership has grown slightly.

It is a significant indication of the important role union membership has played historically in immigrant life here. The first wave of "foreign workers," who arrived in the early 1960s, had it the hardest. 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 descriptions his father gave of his life when he would come home to Turkey. Germany, he told his children, was a green country, with big factories, wide boulevards and large cities. "But they didn't accept him," Aktaz remembers him saying. "He didn't have his family with him, and he didn't speak the language well."

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 immigrants 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 the worst jobs, and the lowest pay. The jobs that are disappearing the fastest belong to us. But we remain union members in much greater numbers than others because we've come to look at the union as our political homeland."

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. He describes his experience as very contradictory. On the one hand, discrimination is something he confronts every day. "It's something you feel inside when people treat you a certain way. For example, if I or one 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 years," he says. "I've been elected three times by my coworkers, and I've taken on their cause. But my foremen and supervisors don't like this one bit, and they make it clear they don't like it. They don't like the fact that I'm a steward, because they don't like the union itself. But they particularly 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 our working 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 the profits of the company, but they don't do us any good. They just make us work harder. The company tells us time after time that we have to agree 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 next 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 U.N. International Day of Action Against Racism. Their large public events are organized in coalition with the German Intercultural Council and the Committee of Turks in Germany (the more progressive of the two national Turkish organizations.)

"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 involved in than the political parties, especially around the issue of foreigners. I 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 to become 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 last 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 immigration department didn't attach a specific number to its goal, however, since, according to Campos, "we want the problem resolved politically, not mathematically."

Other German unions still see immigrants as a threat. In Berlin the federal government is building a new center for the city, with numerous government buildings. But German construction unions, for the first time, are finding themselves locked out of the country's largest construction project. Instead, the work is being performed by a network of contractors and subcontractors. At the bottom, the workforce primarily consists of 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 between the U.S. and Mexico, without the racial aspect of the divide. "On our side, a worker can earn as much in an hour as the same person can earn in a day over there," says IG Metall cultural affairs director Kurt Schmitz. A 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 losing battle to keep immigrants out of their trade and their country, or are they going to see them as potential union members, and try to organize them?" he asks.

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 an 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 remind his audience that "People come in every color."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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