The Left Berlin News & Comment

This is the archive template

Gorillas Workers Collective: “The political space we created served as a place of resistance”

Interview with Camilo, a former Gorillas rider about organising workers in the fast food sector

How did you start and what was your position at Gorillas?

Camilo: I started working in Gorillas in October 2020. I was working as a rider in different warehouses and districts.

The working conditions changed quite a bit as Gorillas grew very quickly, expanding the number of warehouses and delivery orders.

At first it was an easy job. You had enough time to sit down, read a book, and have a cup of coffee. Then we had the first winter of the pandemic. The weather became worse and there were a lot of people ordering. All those little breaks disappeared. That became a heavy load to carry—both literally and metaphorically.

What was your experience carrying this heavy load?

Camilo: It was very bad. By law, you’re not supposed to carry more than 10 kilograms on your back, but this is never actually measured in the warehouses. People would order a bunch of beers or water and it would be terrible.

Having back pain after a shift was probably the most common reason why people wouldn’t go to work. People were on sick leave because of back pain, and this can be chronic in the long run. But at the very beginning we all assumed it to be part of the job. We weren’t aware of this limit of 10 kilograms.

We also have to bear in mind that most Gorillas workers are immigrants. They are either students or people on a working holiday visa. They don’t know much about the legal framework here. Also, the working conditions are still better than what people have in their home countries.

It was pretty bad in the warehouse I was working at—the heating was broken and they never fixed it. This was the winter when there was a snowstorm in Berlin. You would get back to the warehouse all wet, and all they gave us was hairdryers to try to warm our hands. I caught tonsillitis and was sick for about two months.

There was little protection against COVID. The warehouses were packed. It was not a safe place to work.

But I didn’t have an option, as I needed the work. Like most people who worked there, I was put on a six-month probation period, meaning we could get fired for no reason. This made it scary to complain, especially for people who are really dependent on this job.

Can you tell me more about the working conditions in the warehouse? You mentioned working during the blizzard.

Camilo: That was something else. Gorillas now provide equipment for you, like bikes, helmets sometimes and winter gear. This has been improving over the last few months. But at the very beginning it wasn’t like that. They always promised to give people jackets, but many never received them so we had to share. During the pandemic this was not so hygienic.

The bikes were not owned by Gorillas but rented from another company. Sometimes they would have weird noises or the handle would be loose; the brakes wouldn’t work properly. I didn’t have any accidents, but a lot of people did because they were sitting on the bike and the seat fell off or the brakes didn’t work, so they crashed against a car.

Again, people felt like they could not complain or individually refuse to work because they could get fired. They had to expose themselves to these very dangerous conditions.

We also have to remember that the Gorillas business model is providing groceries in under 10 minutes. Even though they tell you to be careful when you drive, you have to get there in under 10 minutes. You are pressured to be quick. You often disregarded your own safety.

You were also part of the Gorillas Workers Collective. When did the GWC get started?

Camilo: Before the blizzard came, somebody had written an open letter to Gorillas Management. A colleague of mine read out the letter at the end of a shift and said: “Who wants to sign it?” The letter was asking the company to listen to workers and try to find a way to fix the problems. I signed, hoping to find people that I could talk to about this.

Then the blizzard came. People from two warehouses refused to work. Basically, they organized a spontaneous strike.

This forced the company to acknowledge that working conditions were precarious and to close down operations for the day. It gave a signal to the workers that if we organize, we can do something about it.

On that day, all other delivery companies had decided not to continue operations but Gorillas said, “We’re so cool. We’ll still do it,” which is the attitude of Gorillas’ marketing.

I reached out to this person who had presented the letter and said that I’d like to contribute to whatever’s happening because we should do something. I was invited to an online meeting. I think that was the first meeting of the collective.

There were maybe eight people, and a member of FAU, who gave us a general framework of possibilities. He suggested a Betriebsrat, which is something that many of us had never heard about.

We tried to have meetings every one or two weeks. We didn’t have a clear idea of what to do. We just knew that we needed some kind of critical mass in the company, because if we wanted to create a workers’ council, we needed support from people.

There was a lot of undercover work like putting stickers up in the bathrooms with a QR code to join a Telegram group. That was fun. We also tried to organize social gatherings with riders outside work. That was difficult because of COVID, as people had not yet been vaccinated.

Then we made a logo and printed a bunch of stickers.

In July 2021, the Gorillas CEO said he wouldn’t fire anyone over the strikes. But then he did it anyway. What did you make of this?

Camilo: None of us actually believed him when he said that, but it increased the media attention about what was happening. But it’s easier for them to let people go and maybe ruin their image than to have a strike.

Once they fired the staff from entire warehouses. That was a strong hit to our collective, because a lot of new people were starting to join the collective. But then they all got fired, though some managed to get reinstated through court cases.

We were hoping to have some kind of rotation. Without rotation, you end up creating hierarchies and bureaucrats who don’t really represent the workers.

People got tired after that, others got another job. It was very distressing dealing with court cases as most of us are immigrants. Just the idea of having to go to court is scary. Everything is in German and it’s too much. That was the company’s strategy—to dissolve what we’re doing by intimidating us.

What can you tell me about these firings even being legal?

Camilo: A lot of firings were not legal and some of them fell in a grey area.

In the early days, they tried to fire somebody from the collective. But they gave him a termination letter without the proper signature. We already had some legal support, who then spotted that mistake and contested the firing.

This person got reinstated. This is when we created the workers’ council. Before that, we were thinking, “Maybe we should wait until we have a critical mass.” But by starting that process, we could provide protection against being sacked.

You only need three people to call for an assembly, which elects an electoral council, which in turn organizes the elections for the workers council. The three people who call for the election get immediate protection. By law, they cannot be fired.

That created a trench for us to to fight from. We didn’t have to be completely undercover because we had these three faces that could speak on behalf of the group. That was a very important moment.

When we formed the Electoral Council, it was about nine people who then also got protection. Some of those people got unlawfully fired because they had been seen on the strikes.

There’s a lot of things that Gorillas does that are not legal and they just get away with it because contesting it takes a long time. There is a court hearing where you wait for months. In that process, people get tired.

You’re always dealing with an algorithm or with an app or an email address. You don’t have somebody that you can directly talk with. You can go to HR and ask what’s going on, but there’s no human that you can talk with. This makes the whole process much more frustrating.

You said that German laws say it’s legal to strike as long as you go through established unions. And unions can, in retrospect, take the strikes under their wings. Does the Gorillas Workers Collective consider joining an established union?

Camilo: I would say no as far as I know, because of the kind of relationship that we had with the unions when I was there. The NGG union was helpful when it came to organizing the assembly where we elected the Electoral Council. Then we were transferred to Ver.di because that was the sector that we fell under. And Ver.di were always trying to deter us from striking.

Old union structures have their own internal hierarchies which were useful 100 years ago. But for a lot of people in the collective, they don’t apply to how the industry works today with temporary work.

People are just going to be in Gorillas for three, six months, a year at the most, and then leave the country. They’re not really interested in getting affiliated with a union and paying for membership.

When we were starting, and some of us asked Ver.di for support, they were not interested. But when things became a little more public, they said they supported us. But the approach they took was so patronizing.

When Ver.di came knocking on our door, we already knew how to constitute a workers council because we had taken some workshops that had been facilitated through the FAU. But they came trying to teach us how to do it.

They invited us to a meeting to talk about how we can support each other. But for them, it was a meeting to educate us on how we should do things. They were telling us how the things we were doing were wrong and that striking was wrong.

Our reaction was, “Who are you people? Fuck you, we don’t need your help if you’re going to do it like this.” It felt to me that we were spending more energy trying to deal with them than any practical support we were actually getting from them.

So, I don’t see the collective getting affiliated with any union. And it seems like Ver.di didn’t like FAU and FAU didn’t like Ver.di, and they’re fighting each other. We didn’t want to take part in this. We have a struggle. If you want to support us, come support us. But we’re not going to be part of this partisanship.

Did you feel you’re kind of part of a bigger movement? Your strike and unionizing process was followed internationally.

Camilo: For sure. I had the chance to go to Brussels, because we were invited by a French Left MEP Leila Chaibi to meet organizers in the delivery sector around the world. All of a sudden I was sitting there in the European Parliament, talking to this super high authority.

I consider myself to be a newbie over there because the organizers there were older people and really knew what they were doing. I was just listening, really. But the political space that we created served as a place of resistance.

On the one hand, you had the workers’ struggles, on the other, there’s the struggle against racism and patriarchy. The FLINTA* population within the collective was very important. The collective is a site for articulating other struggles. I see the collective as a site for articulating other struggles, which itself is also a struggle on its own.

You don’t work with Gorillas anymore. But you’re writing your master’s thesis about it. Can you tell me more about this?

Camilo: I’m using the Gorillas Workers Collective as a case study. I’m particularly interested in researching the role of care work in political organizations. How do we value the work that we do when we organize?

I mean care in a very broad way. It’s not just about who makes the food or takes care of children. It’s also how we develop skills to communicate with each other. How do we deal with emotions within our space?

It may have looked like we being quite successful at what we’re doing, but inside there was a lot of conflicts. This took away our energy from other things. The group experienced a lot of burnout and fractures.

Reproductive work, care work, checking in with each other, knowing how to solve conflicts were always put last. Productive work, like organizing a strike, was always fluid. It was seen as the most urgent thing. But in my opinion, it wasn’t.

If we can’t sit down with each other and maybe write about our convictions or the red line that unites us, we won’t be able to work together for a long time. We will not be able to make it sustainable.

I’m thinking about this idea of sustainable solidarity. It was really frustrating for me to spend 30-60 minutes together trying to write a manifesto. When we started doing this, people started dropping out. They didn’t come to the meetings and they would only come to “productive” meetings, like for the strikes or preparing interview.

I’m looking forward to what you’ll say on sustainable solidarity, care work and other struggles in your thesis.

Camilo: There’s still a long way to go, but luckily I do have a lot of auto-ethnographic experience that I can draw from. I’m also trying to do some synergy between my activism and academia.


Book Review – Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunts US Energy Policy (Robert Vitalis)

What is at stake when it comes to oil? A new book investigates


The premise of Vitalis’ book is that oil cannot be the basis of the US economy, least of all, of US national security. There are several minerals (over seventy) which the industrial world needs a constant and secured supply of, and which civilization simply cannot do without. But they are not treated as being as important as oil. This makes us question apparent self-evident truths in news cartels! The average observer has never heard of countries waging war to ensure reliable shipments of aluminum or copper. What is it so special, then, with oil? What is at stake with oil?

According to Vitalis, the story of oil is not the crude matter, but more about suspicous data and poor evidence. Powerful interest groups and lobbies in US corridors of power steer this data toward selling a myth. The fear of failing to ensure a constant supply of oil from the Persian Gulf is supposed to spell a trauma. The myth sits on others. Both science and reason tell us that there has never been a dwindling supply of oil, nor of any other natural resources. As technology advances, new reserves of all types of minerals are constantly discovered. The only way of freeing the US democracy, nay, the very political system and ensuring a solid role-model for the rest of the word is to shed these myths. They cripple US policy planners and ruin the US reputation in the world.

Chapter One ‘Opening’

This sets the stage for revisiting President Bush’s conquest of Iraq in 2003 and check the argument that the US acted on behalf of large oil conglomerates. If so, Vitalis rebuts, the easiest way for the US to access Iraqi oil was to simply lift its own 1990s sanctions on Iraqi exports. So oil companies would have entered the market and the problem resolved. Moreover Vitalis argues, as prices rose in the early 2000s, an abundant hydraulically-fractioned oil made the US a major producer of oil itself.

Now, the US import of oil from the Middle East is around 18 percent. Nevertheless, “Junk social science” (p. 5) keeps a scary narrative aflame. When luminaries and public intellectuals are fixated on their myth of ‘oil-as-power’, the term ‘oilcraft’ recalls witchcraft more than statecraft. Vitalis’ analogy call’s for dispelling confusion and talismanic obsession by promoting a rational understanding of decisions on energy policy. If the only evidence ‘junk’ social scientists provide is price rises, it brings us face to face  ‘oil-scarcity ideology’ (p. 6). Vitalis stresses that every statement we encounter in the archive should be taken with a grain of salt.

He proposes we consider three facts: (1) the world is rich of minerals; literally anyone has access to raw materials. Viewing oil-as-weapon is at best incorrect and at worst a ‘chimera’ (p. 14). Instead of embracing a confirmation bias, the abundance should make us question what lies beyond the ‘phenomenal’; (2) the imagined threats to oil supply—even when real—cannot be addressed militarily; (3) oil prices are dependent on other raw materials. A simple comparison of oil prices against other minerals in the long durée—as Roger Stern does—will lead to the conclusion that oil cannot be the lifeblood of the American way of life.

Raw Materialism

Chapter Two posits the idea of a single source as critically important for a national economy is reductionist at best and misleading at worst. Vitalis cites  the early twentieth century Columbia School (scholars like Edward Mead Earle and William S. Culbertson). These noted that US policy since 1918 was rooted in “bogeys”, from rapid depletion of natural resources to British monopoly of these resources (pp. 26-7). Back then, like now, there was an industry behind studies, infuriating the public and policy makers alike about such imagined threats.

Vitalis finds the idea of “‘control’ of foreign oil fields” (p. 29) became a priority for the US economy  in Americans’ unconscious during the 1990s. Culbertson argued that wars do not emerge from the need to control or ensure extensive supplies of raw materials, but from the need for markets to commercialize industrialized commodities. (p. 32) Embracing mid-nineteen century protectionism triggered bouts of scarcity syndrome.

But a generation or two later these findings from the 1920s were forgotten. The Cold War context made it more likely that the Soviets were ‘threatening’ US access to Middle East oil. Vitalis adds that even Noam Chomsky falls into confirmation bias wherein “the progressives of the 1970s were a pale imitation of their 1920s ancestors.” (p. 55). Progressives kept parroting criticism of American foreign policy without considering where that criticism might be heading.

1973: A Time to Confuse

Chapter Three rereads October 17, 1973 and the alleged OPEC oil embargo, as only a spectacle. For Vitalis under no stretch of imagination did it approximate to a threat of cutting supplies, let alone, an embargo. For in 1973 “only 7 percent of U.S. oil imports originated from the Middle East” (p. 57). Besides, Arab nationalists only expressed a half-hearted and face-saving gestures in the wake of their humiliating defeat against Isarel in June 1967— gestures meant for popular consumption at home only.

Nevertheless, the scarcity-thesis driven by media and ‘experts and intellectuals’, to gain monopoly – made it look as if scarcity is imminent and can usher in the end of the world. Vitalis discusses the five hundred page report (David S. Freeman’s ‘A Time to Choose’)  released when Americans were experiencing long lines in gas stations. The report made it super easy to conclude that the long queues resulted from the much-publicized shock spelling serious disruptions of supply, presumably orchestrated by the Arab Embargo.

In reality, OPEC “sought a fairer share of the windfall.” (p. 64) To protect local crude producers from  the unstable market, the US government had used a preferential tariff with local crude producers. The Nixon Administration, however, decided in 1971 to reverse the preferential tariff policy and open the US market to non-American producers. This new policy, not OPEC’s action, explains the interruption in supply and long queues. Far from disrupting supply, Arabs were terrified of losing their market shares.

No Deal

Chapter Four  elaborates on the motivating principle behind the myth that stipulates the invisibility of oil for the American policy maker. It is definitely the key chapter as it uncovers the motive behind portraying oil as the bloodline of the American economy. Vitalis notes that this myth could not become as intense as it is now without the ‘fantasy-embraced-as-history’. Given their nefarious stature after 9/11, the Saudis, or Al Saud, more exactly: the ruling oligarchs of Saudi Arabia – invested heavily in  painting themselves as peace-loving and reliable suppliers of oil for US economy. They went as far as inventing a presumed memorandum of understanding (a deal) between King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt on board the destroyer U.S.S. Qunicy near the end of the World War II. The author finds no trace of this presumed deal in the archives. But it supposedly stated that the Saudis would ensure reliable shipments of crude and the US, would guarantee the protection of the king and his dynasty.

Vitalis adds: “The only problem is that no account of U.S.-Saudi relation for the next fifty years said any such thing.” (p. 87).  But “The Saudis, the PR firms, and their many friends in Washington would milk the meeting with FDR for all it was worth after 2001.” (p. 91). Vitalis counts this Saudi fabrication among the latest in the arsenal of forgeries specifying the centrality of oil.

Interest groups profit from recycling oil dollars in the US economy through purchases of US treasury bonds, consumer goods and, of course, armament bills with astronomical price tags. That is how, it is for the long-term interest of the US to distance itself from a retrogressive and degenerate monarchy. That proximity does a considerable damage to the status of the US as a superpower. The crumbling of the Saudis’ rule will be an event that will boost, not hinder, the US supremacy or at least its leadership credentials.

Breaking the Spell

Chapter Five concludes Oilcraft. Vialis starts by underlining that “popular and scholarly beliefs about oil-as-power have no basis in fact” (p. 122). But the irony of the myth is that policy makers who sincerely want to break this fixation can do little to break the immanent structure whereby oil is received as invisible. The assumptions are so powerful that any attempt to go against them end in discrediting, or ridiculing, the credible policy maker. The first step is getting the scholarship correct, never allowing unchecked opinions to pass for knowledge. Knowledge starts by first, making sure that crude producers have no choice but to sell their outputs. Before harming the US economy, cutting supplies will strangle their own economies and destabilize their hold on power.

Second, one needs to be certain that besides the fact that deploying an army to protect crude supplies cannot be tenable and efficient, the deployment itself raises tensions and causes supply interruptions. Third, the Middle East is a volatile space, and it does not behoove a superpower to be constantly dragged into the mess out there. Fourth, by the same depleted logic of scarcity, why does the US not go and chase bauxite, tungsten, tin, rubber lest they are all appropriated by other powers? Fifth, there is a fallacy by which the degenerate Left sells its credentials: which is as soon as soon as the US steps out of the Middle East, “the fossil-capital-led order” will fall all on its own; allowing an era of plenitude to automatically emerge.

Finally Vitalis notes that “Oilcraft today [has] hijack[ed] the mind of the scientifically literate” (p.128),  the average person believes oil passes as an explanation for almost all wrongs with the world. He believes that Saudi money should not be allowed to finance studies. Vitalis rightly says “the paid-to-think-tanks” (p. 131) will only bring pseudo-science, more confusion and befogged policies. Moreover the propaganda which the funding generates covers for the asphyxiation of liberties in the Middle East and the world at large. In the end, Vitalis rightly addresses the US policy maker: “why fear an Arabia without Sultans?” (p. 133)


Vitalis finds that well-intentioned and respectful policy makers and advisers are crippled by enduring myths. These myths have taken a dimension that is larger than life. He is certainly correct that the journey for undoing their effect start with unbiased research. But there are instances where Vitalis’ suspicion of the ideology that “oil-is-anything-but-powerful”, recalls the theory that colonies cost metropolitan centers more than the latter could squeeze value out of them.

Perhaps missing in Vitalis’ discussion is how during the time where capital expansion needed nationalism, oil was treated (and for good reasons) as the lifeblood. Vitalis indirectly calls for updating sedimented thinking, since capitalistic growth since the 1920s (exactly after WWI) is not conditioned on the old mystique view of oil-as-bloodline, given the abundance of supply. Producers simply cannot afford to withdraw crude from buyers lest they risk losing their share in a highly competitive market. Similarly, no major power can hinder access to oil because oil remains evenly available everywhere.

There have been two temporalities of capital accumulation, not one: formal and real dominations. This explains why after WWI, occupying a colony becomes financially inhibitive. At an advanced stage of primitive accumulation, anonymous capital becomes self-regulating. During the era of real domination (post 1918) there cannot be a need for a class of bourgeois pioneers to intervene. That explains why the bourgeois class has since disappeared. In its place, there emerged a capitalistic class who give the illusion that they are in charge but are in charge of absolutely nothing. They are simply managers/administrators (CEOs) appointed by shareholders to speak on behalf of the latter interest.  Hence – “raw materials are color-blind.” (p. 36) and that colonies are a burden to maintain.

Vitalis’ analysis in Chapter Four dwells on the corruption of the Saudis and their dizzying pace of change ‘from camels to Cadilliacs’ (p. 95) paid for by oil rent, may sound racist and inconsequential in the overreaching impact of oil wealth. Oil wealth decides less their conservative outlook but more significantly intensifies their adamant predisposition against an egalitarian polity all over the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. The counter revolutions that quelled the uprisings of the Arab Spring both in 2011 and 2019 were engineered and financed principally by their medieval outlook. Vitalis notes that with recycled petrodollars the Saudi acquired F-15 jets which since March 2015 bombed civilians in Yemen. But he could have also noted that worse than F-15s is the regressive and ultra-conservative brand of the faith, whose sole agenda is the crashing all social movements which moved towards a lifestyle free from the dictatorship of oil.

Overall, there are instances where Vitalis’ debunking of myths such ‘oil-as-power’ falls into the right; and others where which falls more into the left. At times he can even be counted as a devout communist. But this is the quality of great scholarship, where he passionately elucidates his points regardless of class or ideology. Indeed, Vitalis embraces his mission to eradicate facile portrayals. Masquerading beneath so-called ‘self-evident conclusions’ lies not only tperpetuating mistaken decisions but squandering of the US taxpayers’ savings as well as the subaltern of the MENA chances for a future in dignity.

Vitalis, Robert. 2020. Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunts US Energy Policy. Stanford University Press; pp. ‎ 240 pages; Paperback: $22.00; Hardcover: $22.47; ISBN-10 :1503632598; ISBN-13: 978-1503632592

Bizim Kiez

For lively neighbourhoods and a city of solidarity


Bizim means “Our” in Turkish”. So “Bizim Kiez” means “Our Kiez”. Bizim Kiez was formed in 2015 by disgusted neighbours as a protest against the termination of the family fruit and vegetable shop “Bizim Bakkal” in Wrangelkiez in Kreuzberg. Since then, we campaign as a neighbourhood action group against evictions and for the preservation of living Kiezes.

We experience it everyday: rent rises, terminations, conversions of rentals into private property, evictions, luxury modernisations, psycho terror – our neighbourhoods are nothing else but objects of profit for those people who may be called “investors”, but only want to cash up.

We are making pressure against this sell off of the city: with research and public outreach, with practical help and self-help in conflicts with politics, in cooperation with other initiatives, and of course with diverse political activities on the street.

Strengthen neighbourhoods: we support neighbours who have been threatened with eviction, make joint pressure on owners, bring their machinations and methods into the open, support housing communities, for example with questions about pre-purchase rights, share knowledge and experiences with each other. We don’t just discuss, we also design joint materials for actions, cook for our rallies, text songs, or develop ideas with artists. This is how quite different people come together, get to know each other, and see how they can rely on each other.

Make housing politics for renters: We work on the political level, bring in expertise and have already caused public officials and parties to take measures against the speculative real estate industry and the devastation that it causes. Among other things, we demand a ban on converting rented into private property, real higher limits for rent, the removal of the modernisation allocation according to law §559 BGB, measures against speculation in land and property, remunicipalising homes into “new apartments”, and the promotion of management concepts based on the common good.

We therefore also support initiatives to expropriate the big players, such as Deutsche Wohnen AG and others. To solve the housing crisis we need vehement protection of tenants, sustainably financed building of new properties based on need and public welfare, and a radical social reorientation of communal housing companies.

Defend small shops and social institutions: Whether bakers, tailors or Spätis – small shops do not just guarantee the livelihood of many families and thus provide for the neighbourhood. They also give the Kiez its look and give us all meeting places. Tradespeople, and in particular social institutions with commercial leases, like Kitas or clubs for seniors, have been surrendered to the profit-driven arbitrariness of the real industry without protection. This is why, together with others, we are building networks of solidarity for support. We are fighting together for more tenants’ rights, also for small businesses, trades, social and culture.

But we fundamentally reject corporations and chains (Google, Zalando, Factory, wework or Hotels), which just see our Kiezes as a colourful background for their businesses and want to heat up the dynamic of rising prices. This also means the rising commercialisation and touristification with gastro-monoinfrastructure and holiday homes.

Shape the city with solidarity: The city of solidarity of the many is the social alternative to neoliberal madness, which only understands the city as an area for profit. We want more togetherness and more collective decisions. We stand for social justice for all and against racism. We are part of alliances, networks and projects for a democratic development of the city based on human need.

Join us! We are an open initiative with the character of a platform, and working groups based on subjects and projects, in which everyone can get involved in a variety of ways. If your are interested, you are warmly invited to meet us at our monthly meetings.

Twitter: @bizimkiez
Telephone: 030 61789066

Film Review – Start Wearing Purple

A film about the fight against gentrification in Berlin gives a sense of how we can win. A sequel about the messy aftermath would be just as informative

2021, The City of Berlin.

A pair of people wearing purple vests are going through an apartment block door-to-door collecting signatures. Volkan explains that he is paying €500 for a room in a shared house, and has had to move flat several times. It’s making him sick.

Chris is collecting signatures on the banks of the Spree, the river which cuts through Berlin. His previous political experience includes organising health workers’ strikes. When he moved into a flat owned by Deutsche Wohnen – one of the largest and most exploitative landlords in Berlin – he joined this campaign.

Welcome to two of the many activists for Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (DWE), a Citizen’s Initiative, which organised a referendum to expropriate apartments owned by profit-extracting large real estate companies. Companies like Deutsche Wohnen.

For the campaign to force a referendum it needed to collect 175,000 signatures for expropriation. Historian Ralf Hofrogge explains how in Berlin if enough people propose a law, this must be put to a vote and a majority decision in favour will put it into the constitution.

The campaign is also addressing other social problems. Volkan talks of the difficulty that people with Turkish names have in finding accommodation. Landlords suddenly say that flats are unavailable. If a friend with a German name asks, it suddenly comes back onto the market.

Berta and Adelaide are both active in the DWE working group Right2TheCity, which organises non-Germans. Adelaide from Brazil explains how DWE largely consists of people who look like the city she lives in. It is more open to the participation of younger non-white women than other campaigns that she’s been involved in. Berta was active in the Italian student movement in 2008-2012, but never joined a German movement before this.

The campaign started through a loose movement of a few people who’d been involved in earlier tenants’ campaigns. They first met in a room full of sewing machines. Once they went public, they formed so called Kiezteams, which mobilise people in each local neighbourhood. The aim is to be completely non-hierarchical, but as Assal explains, there are always some people who take on more responsibility than others and some whose voices are louder.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Katalin Gennburg is a councillor for die LINKE (the Left Party) in the Berlin parliament. She explains how the SPD-Green-LINKE government was elected on the promise that they would regulate rents and to solve Berlin’s housing problem. They passed a local law enforcing a rent cap. Unfortunately, the national court ruled that the rent cap was unconstitutional. Landlords used the ruling to start evicting tenants who could not immediately pay the arrears generated.

CDU politician Thorsten Frei argues that the Mietendeckel fiasco is the result of “socialist approaches”. He argues for building more houses, saying that in Hamburg many more apartments are built than in Berlin. His words are supported by Olaf Scholz (who has since been elected German Chancellor) who calls for a speed up in building more apartment.

Katalin Gennburg is not so sure. She says that “building, building, building as an answer to the housing market is really out of time”. The amount of available social housing is actually shrinking. The Hamburger “Alliance for Housing” is in effect an alliance for building luxury flats and assets for hedge funds.

Many people agree with Gennburg. When the rent cap was rejected by the courts, people were more determined to support the DWE referendum. In the week after the ruling, 15,000 signatures were collected – much more than usual. There was a feeling of determination that élite judges should not be allowed to control how much rent working class people have to pay.

Diego Cárdendas is a veteran of a previous referendum campaign, 100% Tempelhofer Feld. The old airport is currently a major park between the districts of Neukölln and Tempelhof-Schöneberg. In 2008, 100% Tempelfhofer Feld organised a successful referendum to prevent the park being privatised, thus stopping luxury flats being built in one of the free spaces that every Berliner can visit. Nonetheless, Diego explains, Tempelhofer Feld is still under threat every day.

The Battle But Not The War

In the final month of the DWE campaign, some collectors started to get demoralised. Some are filmed in May 2021. They have only collected two thirds of the necessary signatures and three-quarters of the time is over. Collecting signatures is not as easy as it used to be, and collectors are meeting an increasingly hostile reaction.

I’m sure that the reports are honest but this experience does not remotely correspond to my own efforts collecting signatures in the working class district of Berlin-Wedding. We collected hundreds of signatures every week right up to the end. We also knew that many people had full petitions at home, so we were sure of meeting our target.

In the end, even our expectations were exceeded. DWE & Co Enteignen was the most successful referendum ever, collecting 350,000 signatures. At the referendum which followed, nearly 60% of people voting supported Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen’s demands. However, winning the referendum did not automatically lead to expropriation.

On the same day as the referendum, there were local elections in Berlin. The main winner was SPD’s upwardly failing former minister Franziska Giffey, who had already made clear that she had no intention of implementing the referendum results. Any decisions were kicked into the long grass and an Experts’ Commission was set up in an attempt to demobilize the movement (for more information about what happened and why, there are plenty of reports here).

This is why viewing Start Wearing Purple should not be a passive act… How do we harness the massive energy and desire for change that electrified Berlin in 2021

Start Wearing Purple was made at a certain point in time, just before the referendum and the elections on 26th September. This means that the film contains the anticipation of victory, and its conclusion is slightly more optimistic than the current feeling in Berlin.

Time For A Sequel?

I would love the film’s directors to make a sequel about what happened next. In a sense, the content of that sequel is still being written. As I was writing this review, the composition of the Experts’ commission has been announced. Over half the members will belong to the SPD and Greens who have, to different extents, opposed expropriation. The suggestion of DWE that they should receive 59.1% commissioners, to reflect the number of people voting for the referendum, has been rejected.

Whatever happens, we will probably wait at least a year until the Commission publishes any conclusions. If things stay as they are, it is unlikely that anything significant will happen before the next elections in four years’ time. But if Start Wearing Purple shows anything, it is that things do not have to stay as they are. It was the active engagement of a determined movement which disrupted the permanent rule of the big real estate companies and the politicians who receive substantial donations from the Property Development Lobby.

Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen was, and is, a popular movement that was suspicious of politics and just went off and tried to change the world. This was both a blessing and a curse. At the moment, the movement is disorientated and trying to develop a strategy of responding to politicians who have no respect for democracy.

This is why viewing Start Wearing Purple should not be a passive act. We should watch the film together and then discuss what it means. What did we do wrong? What went right? How do we harness the massive energy and desire for change that electrified Berlin in 2021.

The implications of Start Wearing Purple are important not just for Berlin, but for everywhere where rapacious landlords try to exploit poor tenants (i.e. everywhere). Deutsche Wohnen & Co was a start, which will hopefully inspire similar movements elsewhere. The campaign was not perfect, but there is plenty to learn from both its successes and its failures.

On Friday, 25th March, the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Kiezteam Mitte will be showing Start Wearing Purple at the Volksbühne as part of Housing Action Day. The film will be followed by a Q&A with the film makers. This is an ideal opportunity to take stock of the campaign, look at what we have won so far, and discuss what is necessary to take the campaign forwards.

News from Berlin and Germany, 24 March 2022

Weekly news roundup from Berlin and Germany


Berlin police face accusations of negligence due to racist right-wing attacks in Neukölln

According to the Berliner Morgenpost and the Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB), the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) had information about a racist threat and a possible endangerment of the Berlin politician Ferat Kocak (“die Linke”). Nevertheless, the authority failed to warn him. The police themselves described it as a “wrong decision”. When the LKA received the threatening email from the “NSU 2.0” naming the home address of Kocak’s family in March 2019, officers should have been sensitised. Source: Morgenpost.

 Queer Berlin left to its own devices

The experiences Konstantin Sherstyuk has had in recent weeks could truly be better. For the association WostoQ-Regenbogen, which works for sexual minorities from the post-Soviet region, the 34-year-old advises queer people who must seek protection in Berlin because of the war in Ukraine. Not only Ukrainians but also Russians are involved. For more and more queer Russians, now seems to be the time to leave the country. Many of them are fleeing to Berlin. And, so far, there is only one contact point for sexual minorities, the information centre at the main train station. Source: nd.

Motion to dismantle the Thälmann bust

Pankow’s CDU, after Putin’s attack, wants the Ernst Thälmann monument to be melted down. Prenzlauer Berg councillor David Paul is proposing this historic site be removed from Berlin’s list of monuments so that the monument can then be demolished and the value of the material donated to aid projects in Ukraine. However, the demand of the Christian Democrats is regarded as highly questionable by the Senate Cultural Administration, led by the Left Senator Klaus Lederer (“die Linke”). This is not the first attempt to remove the Thälmann monument on Greifswalder Straße, designed by the Soviet artist Lew Kerbel. Source: Morgenpost.

The Expropriation Commission

The expert commission that is to examine the implementation of the successful referendum to expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. in Berlin is taking shape. The Senate wants to decide on the formal establishment of the commission as early as next Tuesday. This would fulfill the promise to appoint such a body after the first 100 days in office. The commission is to work for one year on the issue of implementing the referendum. On 26 September 2021, 59.1 percent of Berlin’s voters voted in favour of socialising the portfolios of all private housing companies with more than 3,000 flats in the city. Source: taz.



Another warning strike at airports in Germany

In the collective bargaining conflict in the airport security industry, the trade union ver.di has called for an almost nationwide warning strike on Tuesday. At the airports in Frankfurt, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Hanover, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, and Cologne/Bonn, the screeners are to stop work for the whole day. At Frankfurt airport, only transit passengers are expected to be processed. Last week there was a warning strike at BER in Schönefeld. According to the operator, two-thirds of all departures were cancelled then. A new negotiation date has been set for this Thursday. Source: Tagesspiegel.

AfD plays the victim

The federal budget for 2022 does not include any funds for the “Alternative für Deutschland” AfD-affiliated Desiderius Erasmus Foundation. At first glance, this is understandable. The party and its foundation are full of employees who hold positions against human rights. So, a conclusion could be that they want to collect tax money to spread their ideology. The AfD sees behind many of such decisions conspiracies by the other parties to disadvantage and exclude them. Nevertheless, whether or not the federal government did so in the case of the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation will be decided by the courts. Source: nd.

No end to cuts

Last year, the governmental coalition announced their intention to replace Hartz IV with a citizen’s income. One of the fundamental reforms would be to suspend sanctions for a transitional period of one year until the end of 2022. But the draft from the Federal Ministry of Labour considers that those who do not show up at the Job Centre for agreed appointments without a valid reason will still have to expect a reduction of the subsistence minimum. “By maintaining the sanction regulations for failure to report, the federal government is committing itself to the continuation of the majority of sanctions,” criticises the Paritätische Gesamtverband. Source: nd.

Future with old methods

Tesla plant in Grünheide shows the future, but from the past. It represents a departure, away from the carbon economy, for instance. But it is still about cars, which must park somewhere and get stuck in traffic jams. The raw materials are taken from the earth with environmental consequences. The location of the factory is in the middle of a water protection area. And then there is the matter of the trade unions. If Tesla pays better than the car mechanics in the region and the suppliers, there is to watch out there is no collective agreement, either. Source: nd.