At Daimler’s main factory in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, the far-right are represented in the works council and are attacking migrant colleagues and the metal-workers union IG Metall
Jörn Boewe is a freelance journalist at the Berlin press agency work in progress. He mainly deals with topics around union organising at the workplace as a response to the neo-liberal upheavals in the working world.
Originally published at Freitag
Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
Are right-wing extremists on the rise in Germany’s industrial workforce? Just over a year after the works council elections in 2018, the question arises again. In mid-July, there was a loud verbal dispute between supporters of the right-wing radical group “Zentrum Automobil” (ZA) and the traditional German union IG Metall in front of the gate of the Daimler plant in Mettingen near Stuttgart. The occasion was a leaflet campaign with which the “Zentrum Automobil” promoted its 35-minute film “Der Vertrauensmann” (The Shop Steward), which was posted on the Internet at the beginning of July.
The professionally made film tells the story of two former Daimler employees from the Stuttgart-Untertürkheim parent plant, to which Mettingen also belongs. They had been dismissed last year for sending racist whatsapp news and videos to a colleague of Turkish origin for months. After they extended their insults to the colleague’s family, the latter informed the personnel department. The company opened an investigation and fired both men in June 2018.
In the film produced by “Zentrum Automobil”, the two dismissed men are portrayed as victims of an intrigue: They claim a Turkish colleague – who happens to be a shop steward for IG Metall – asked them to send him the racist memes and videos himself: “Can you send me that, I would love to have it? It was forwarded to me by some people,” explains the one leading actor. “Otherwise I would never have done it,” the other one asserts. A protective statement and “completely remote from reality”, according to the assessment of the Stuttgart Labour Court, which declared the dismissals in November to be legal. The “documentary film”, as the ZA calls its production, on the other hand, focuses on emotionalisation: one of the protagonists is portrayed as “fond of animals”. The other is “suicidal” – it is all very maudlin, manipulative, effective.
Of course it is not about clarifying the conflict, but about the presentation of “alternative facts”, a narrative of one’s own, which in a perfidious way ties in with the increasing resentment and frustration in Germany. “In this narrative, purported left-wing trade unions and international corporations” work hand in hand to systematically betray the interests of “ordinary workers.” 700 IG Metall shop stewards determine the political agenda of works council and executive committee , explains ZA leader Oliver Hilburger in the film. “They are the political force behind a thoroughly corrupt system.”
“A well executed production, so the judgment of the Baden-Wurttemberg IG Metal district leader Roman Zitzelsberger. “It’s a crass lie,” he explained to German state television and affirmed: “Whoever spreads racist incitement will be fired. This will continue to be the case.”
Journey to Görlitz
The film “Der Vertrauensmann” is the PR showcase project of the “Zentrum Automobil” , founded in 2009, which sees itself as an “independent trade union” in “opposition to the purchased establishment trade unions”. A strange “trade union” that in its ten years of existence has neither led an industrial dispute nor concluded a collective agreement. What is striking is that despite the vivid slogans against “financial capital”, “globalisation” and “large corporations”, the main enemy is always IG Metall.
A few years earlier, its founder Hilburger had sat on the works council for the “Christian Metalworkers’ Union” (CGM), an employer friendly organisation that had long tried to compete with IG Metall here and there through undercutting collective agreements. When in 2007/08 left-wing IG Metallers announced that Hilburger had been active for years as a guitarist for the right-wing rock band Noie Werte, whose music was used for propaganda videos by the Neo-nazi terrorist cell “National Socialist Underground”, the CGM could no longer continue supporting him. In 2010 he joined the works council as one of two representatives of his new association ZA. Four years later, the right-wing group was able to increase its result to four seats. The far-right party AfD’s entry into the Bundestag brought a tailwind: In the 2018 works council elections, the ZA won six seats in the factory in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, two in Sindelfingen and three in Rastatt.
To make the this clear: Of the 755 works council members at Daimler, eleven have been on the far right since then. A breakthrough looks different. Nevertheless, the potential must be taken seriously: 1,844 employees at Daimler’s main plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim had voted for the far right organisation, which thus received 13.2 percent of the votes cast. Even more important: 187 candidates (mainly men) had stood for election on their list. This shows that at least in the plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim there is a rank and file as well as something like a “hard core”.
2018 was also the year in which the far right ZA professionalised its public relations campaign. Together with the right-wing PR agency “Ein Prozent” (One Percent), an initiative of activists of the Identitarian Movement, the campaign “Werde Betriebsrat” (Become a Shop Steward) was launched. When in January 7,000 workers protested in Görlitz against the threatened closure of the Bombardier and Siemens plants there, Hilburger arrived with a handful of followers from Baden Wurttemberg. The IG Metall security service refused to allow his ZA contingent to take part in the demonstration. They could however not prevent Hilburger and his film crew from producing a propaganda clip for their Youtube and Facebook channels. The film “Der Vertrauensmann” is the latest example of this ideological battle. It becomes clear: ZA has media professionals and financially strong backers. Despite all its efforts, the ZA outside the Daimler Group has so far been weak: there are supposed to be “plant groups” at BMW and Porsche in Leipzig.
Is everything OK then? No way. Against the backdrop of the hard times facing the German automotive industry – keywords: electromobility and “transformation” – the potential of the far right in the industry is far from exhausted. In any case IG Metall will have to be careful. “In the factory, the far right act as if they were ‘carers’,” says a shop steward from Stuttgart-Untertürkheim. “They don’t achieve anything, but they approach the employees in the plant, pick up where we make mistakes. We, on the other hand, are perceived by many only as those who sit on committees and boards.”
Fear of losing one’s job
At the beginning of July, at a works meeting in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, representatives of ZA accused the IG Metall of following “electro-mania” and being jointly responsible for the threat of job cuts. This is a distorted picture of IG Metall’s new policy, which was only made clear at the end of June during a demonstration in Berlin with 50,000 participants. It is advocating a “fair transformation” and wants to prevent the automobile companies from unilaterally burdening the employees with the costs of their product reorientation. But in insecure workforces, at least in parts that already regard climate change as a “green” propaganda invention, such an idea can gain support.
If the far right in the factories fashions itself as a protecting the interests of the workers and IG Metall representatives are perceived as those who sit on committees and negotiate job cuts, the alarm signals will sound among the workers, especially in times when the AfD regularly scores slightly above average in elections among trade union members, most recently with 13 percent in the EU elections. If IG Metall does not want to be perceived in the near future only as part of the establishment, it must set its own narrative against this perception in the factories as a tangible reality. The appropriate headline would be “Daring more conflict and more participation”. There are plenty of experiences and initiatives for this – not least in Baden-Wurttemberg, where IG Metall initiated a strategic reorientation to become an “organising union” four years ago. To approach people and make them a concrete offer, to oppose the impositions of global capitalism, and to confront the far right with one’s own class solidarity is what is needed today. A clear strategy must now be set for this. The upcoming IG Metall trade union conference in October offers the opportunity.