Berlin Berlin. Photo: Nordenfan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

A Counterfire member shares his experience of organising workers in difficult circumstances


In order to protect myself, others, and organising activities, I have obscured some information so it is not easy to trace it back to me.

I moved to Berlin from the UK in April 2022 and started work as a data engineer at a tech platform with a brand considered a household name throughout Germany. The company had been run relatively independently and retained its ‘start-up vibe’ right up until I started. It was a very nice place to work, people were relatively well paid and the firm competed with the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google etc for ‘talent’. The firm is 400 strong, takes large annual profits of around 33% and has done so largely since inception. The firm is currently on a trajectory of significant growth with the headcount doubling in the last year.

When I started, the firm was acquired by a large global tech group and things immediately started to change. In April ‘23 it was announced that most employees would get a 0% pay-rise despite hitting all financial targets and reporting an annual EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation) of 33%. In an environment of very high inflation, with rents in Berlin increasing by 25% in one quarter alone, this went down like a proverbial lead balloon. It was then that I saw the opportunity for organising and was able to identify other workers ready to take action.

‘Work Council you say? What’s that?’

From my conversations, I knew it was not possible to unionise. Mentioning such a word will get you branded a freedom-hating communist in the former Soviet GDR. However, what the German state does have is Work Council legislation which has the legal right to ‘co-determine’ on a number of issues that affect workers – or in other words, the company has to get the ‘approval’ of the WoCo (Works Council) to push through certain things, or risk getting sued by it. An active Works Council can negotiate and implement legally binding ‘Works Agreements’.

While this legislation certainly ‘has teeth’ compared with other countries in the world (only Austria and South Korea have similar legislation), like a lot of legal mechanisms, it is easily undermined and WoCos are easily co-opted by management. I was not impressed by the track record, however there were some notable exceptions and I subsequently learned from a contact that you could use the infrastructure of a WoCo effectively to organise like a union. Most importantly, you can use a WoCo to lay the ground for unionisation when it hits its own limits to improving working conditions (WoCo legislation cannot co-determine on the amount of money, only the distribution).

Unfortunately, back then in April 2023, I was unable to get enough people around me to form the WoCo, and the opportunity of the wave of anger around the 0% pay-rise failed. However, this changed in December 2023, when the parent group was acquired by Blackstone, a notorious company, hated by many, particularly in Berlin, where it has billions of euros of real estate under its management and is constantly increasing rents while simultaneously stripping resident services, driving up the overall market rents.

In January this year, I managed to convince two others to commit to founding and being on the future WoCo – we are known as ‘The initiators’. They were not union friendly, but they endorsed and followed the key ‘strategic guiding principles’ that I proposed, based on conversations I had with WoCos in other tech companies in Berlin. From the little I know about union organising, these are straight out of the union playbook, so that in terms of our organising strategy, I just swapped out the union terminology with corporate-sounding terminology, and adapted slightly to the WoCo context so as not to alienate others.

These ‘strategic guiding principles’ are:

  • The Power of the Works Council is only as strong as the support for it – we will not win stuff by dragging the company through the courts. We have to use the court of employee opinion to put pressure on management to push demands through.
  • We start to build the support for the WoCo initiative by holding regular meetings for discussion and emphasise the importance of involving the workforce in the process of creating a better workplace through the Work Council (educate, agitate, organise).
  • WoCo infrastructure – we will need ‘workplace champions’ (union reps) in every department conducting regular meetings with employees to understand ‘pain-points’ and to involve employees in the negotiations with management.

The screenshots below visualise these strategic points and are taken out of the PowerPoint presentation I created and iterated on, based on the conversations I’d had with external WoCo members in a number of other major tech companies HQ’d in Berlin, and also with the Tech Workers Coalition or TWC.

I shared these strategy documents with my initiating group and in wider supporters’ meetings. They were endorsed and the others consented to me taking on the role of organiser, or in other words, I don’t really do any of the bureaucratic work of organising the election, but instead focus on building the WoCo initiative politically, working with the other external WoCo branch members, and also supporting a sister company based in the same office to form a WoCo (WoCos are recognised and linked in law to the name of the company e.g. ‘Tech Company A GmbH’ so you must form another WoCo for ‘Tech Company B GmbH’ even if you share the same infrastructure and use each other’s services).

Screenshot 1 – Proposed WoCo infrastructure:

Screenshot 2 – the campaign:

Key lessons

It has been quite an exciting and nerve-wracking adventure for me as someone who has never been organised industrially before. However, being a member of Counterfire, and the experience of launching and leading local People’s Assembly and Counterfire branches in the town I was living in in the UK, I believe has given me a significant edge. There have been many lessons for me, but these are the main ones:

Firstly, political consciousness in corporate companies is extremely low. I was pressured to take out the word ‘Campaign’ and replace it with ‘Engagement’, as ‘Campaign’ sounded too political! But that’s ok. Despite the high level of alienation, people feel very strongly about fairness, equality, justice etc, and they all share the view that we are getting screwed by shareholders. The overriding focus is to get workers committed to action and then they see for themselves the real dividing lines, so that all the hard work of bosses to convince workers that ‘we are all one happy family’ very quickly unravels. This is a very politicising experience and I believe has very quickly raised the class consciousness of our core people.

A second major lesson was underestimating the political consciousness of the mass of workers. One way management is able to undermine WoCo is planting their own list of candidates for election to the WoCo – which they did. A split emerged in our core group between those that believed that the intentions of the other list were innocent, and therefore open to ‘working together’, and those that saw it for the management WoCo co-option tactic that it was. We put on a joint mass ‘Question time’ meeting, and the anti-management faction within our supporters’ group planted some difficult questions. These difficult questions were overwhelmingly up-voted by the workforce in the meeting, attended by some 150 employees. The answers exposed the management stooges in the most brutal way so that even I felt sorry for them (not really). This was key in bringing over those initially friendly to the other list to our side.

Current state of play

The election of the WoCo is in mid-May, our supporters’ group is forty strong, our candidate list is made up of a diverse group of 23 frontline workers that proportionally represent the workforce, with nine out of ten of the management-stooge list made up of senior managers with the title of ‘head of’.

While in a minority, there are still some vocal voices that believe the management-stooge list’s intentions are innocent, though thanks to our joint ‘Question Time’ meeting, they see their view is at odds with majority of the workforce, who see the situation for what it is, and I believe they are now, thanks to this meeting, a minority faction within the core group. However, we are looking at a situation where at least one seat on the WoCo will be occupied by a stooge, possibly more, depending on how successful we are at reaching the non-voters. At the moment, I am building up the case of the importance of holding separate meetings once the WoCo is formed and bringing more core people over to the anti-stooge camp.

There are many challenges ahead, not least that I am 100% certain the management team are working with a union-busting law firm, while many core people refuse to believe it despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The majority of workers are hybrid and mostly remote, which makes it very difficult to organise. It’s a challenge to get our core people away from their day jobs and into action. Unfortunately, due to the split in the group as a result of the management-stooge list, I missed an important opportunity to convince our core people of the importance of one-to-one conversations in growing the group, and getting people out to vote, and it has been a very difficult argument to make, but I still have some time before the election in mid-May to make the case.

Getting as high a percentage of people out to vote, and as many to vote for our list as possible, is vital to the future of the Works Council. Its power lies in its democratic legitimacy and integration with the workforce. I will write a follow-up article after the election where we will have a reasonably good view of its likelihood of success against one of the most viciously anti-worker companies in the world: Blackstone.

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