Germany: Union militant on how wind-power development is held to ransom for profit

Wind turbine towers at Bremerhaven port. Photo by Lucy Alcorn.

March 11, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Socialist Alliance member Zane Alcorn spoke with Ali Can, a metalworker who has worked in the wind-turbine industry in the north German portside town Bremerhaven. Ali is a rank and file organiser with the trade union IGMetal and is an active member of Verein für Gleiche Rechte (Equal Rights Association), a secular Turkish community centre. Translated by Anne K. Schulz.

Can you tell us a little about Bremerhaven – how many people live here, what are the main industries, how has the city changed in the last 20 years?

Bremerhaven is part of the state of Bremen and it is a city state in Germany. Bremerhaven and Bremen are two Islands within the bigger state of Niedersachsen but they are the same state.
In 1990 there were 140,000 people who lived in Bremerhaven; nowadays we have 113,000. In the past few years the population grew by a couple of hundred people and this was cause for celebration.

The main industries here are fishing and shipbuilding. In the last 20 years we have lost 10,000 jobs, especially on the docks. We still have three wharves but two are threatened with closure. There was also a US military base here which also closed after unification.

More recently the wind-turbine industry has brought a welcome revitalisation of the local manufacturing industry and created new jobs. It should also be noted that the industry is not without its downsides; there has been damage to a local marine park and the closure of the local airport as a result of the proliferation of wind farms here.

You work in the wind-turbine manufacturing industry. Where do you work?

I have been working in the industry since 2005. My first job was at a firm that builds wind-turbine towers (AMBAU). It builds towers for both offshore and onshore wind farms.

Since then I have worked in the construction of offshore wind farms (with breaks each winter). The firms I have worked for are temping firms and I do not always work on wind industry based jobs.

What model of wind turbines are manufactured here in Bremerhaven – are they exclusively offshore?

At the start they were only on land and I would help manufacture 60-metre towers for 2-3 MW units. Nowadays both on sea and on land the standard size is 5 MW; the typical tower size is 120-130 metres. A 5 MW machine typically supplies enough power for about 3000 households.
There are four or five main firms here and then delivery/supplies firms and then other specialised companies that don’t produce anything but who take the finished manufactured modules and physically construct the wind farms.

The companies here include AREVA, Weserwind, CCS, Multibrid, and Siemens. Most of these firms are foreign firms – from Denmark, England, Sweden. Norwind is from Norway, Siemens is transnational; sometimes there are large energy utilities like EoN backing the manufacturers.

How many people would you estimate are employed in the wind industry in Bremerhaven, noting the recent downturn?

At its height there were 2500 people employed in the industry but now there are only 1000 left working in the industry here. Some firms have introduced short hours and other firms have threatened to close completely. At the same time a new factory has opened in Nordenham, but its future is very uncertain at the moment.

When was the height of employment?

The six months following the Fukushima nuclear power station disaster in Japan saw the high point. We even saw conservative politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel announcing that the transition to 100% renewable energy would happen in 20 years instead of 50, and that this would include phasing out atomic energy. We were all very pleased with that – we were positively surprised. We thought that because she is a physicist she would understand why radioactivity is so dangerous.

I understand there is a large amount of offshore wind farm capacity already built in the North Sea just waiting to be connected, but there are delays in building grid connections between the offshore plants and the main industrial load centre in central Germany. Is this connection delay causing major problems to the offshore wind manufacturing sector?

Yes. That grid connection issue is the main problem affecting the industry here. Previously all that infrastructure would have been built by the state, but the energy sector has all been privatised. Basically, when the government privatised the energy it never worked out with the firms who would be responsible for building grid connections. EoN [the energy company] said that the state had to provide grid connections to its wind farms.

It’s difficult to believe with a multibillion dollar project like this -- but the reality is basically they have stuffed it up. After Merkel responded positively to the idea of shifting to renewables things started well -- but then when it came to connecting all these new wind farms, the state said that the energy companies should build the connections, and the energy companies said the state should do it.

Finally, the arrangement that seems to have been arrived at is that the state is building the grid connections and the energy companies are contributing toward some of the cost. Another issue at the start was that there was only one of the special offshore wind building boats to service the entire North Sea.

There were also complaints from the atomic and coal energy interests that wanted compensation for the energie wende policy (shifting Germany to renewables).

How much wind capacity is built and waiting to be connected?

There was one project I was working on consisting of 80 x 5 MW turbines that had to be bailed out because the proponent went bankrupt. That bailout includes the grid connection.

There is another offshore farm with 40 turbines and the connection has not been done because there are unexploded bombs from World War II on the sea floor there.

The sad and ironic thing is that the turbines need to be kept spinning so they don’t rust, which requires diesel generators. The big energy concerns have made a lot of noise about these problems affecting these wind farms and as a result a section of the population feel that there is a cloud over the wind-energy industry as a whole.

If this connection issue was resolved could the industry be able to get back to 2500 people employed -- and would that be a sustainable number to remain employed?

Yes. We actually hope for more employment in the wind-energy sector here than 2500 people.

Bremerhaven politicans locally have put a lot of focus on retaining and expanding wind-turbine production and this political support is important. The frozen fish industry has declined from employing 6000 people 20 years ago to just 1500 now, and as I mentioned earlier there has been a substantial decline in the shipbuilding industry. There are flow-on effects from job losses in these areas.

We saw the wind-energy industry as a way of saving lots of jobs and supporting associated industries -- even if it is just 1500 people working in the industry.

In the coalition agreement between the new [national] Christian Democratic Union/SocialDemocratic Party government, the subsidies that were agreed to for phasing out atomic energy by 2020 were reduced by 40%. The SPD energy minister in the coalition has cut the subsidies further and the trade unions can’t understand this. Maybe the pressure from the atomic energy industry has been too much. We expected that from the conservatives but not from the SPD.

I understand work in the wind industry is highly contractualised or casualised. How does this affect the workforce, especially with the current downturn?

I’ll give you an example. There have been great hopes of Weserwind here in Bremerhaven expanding, and of another plant in Cuxhaven doing the same. Huge halls have been built, and old shipbuilding warehouses leased out to manufacture wind turbines, but these are now just sitting empty.

The Weserwind company employ a couple of hundred people directly, but then had up to 2000 casual, contract and temporary staff on top of that. It set up its own casual agency employing 600 workers, and employed a further 1000 or so through other agencies.

Once this grid connection bottleneck started affecting the manufacture of turbines, the company shed large numbers of those temporary and casual workers very quickly, and now it has those remaining couple of hundred permanent staff working.

The working conditions and wages are better than what you would typically get as a metalworker here -- particularly because the union was well organised and we had a works council from day one.

The casual workers had high hopes because they were promised permanent contracts if they were working well. But suddenly it collapsed, and the people have got nothing now.

What impact does this casualisation have on the ability of wind-industry workers to be involved in their trade union and defend their rights at work?

Some people are used to taking home 2000 euro per month but then all of a sudden they are now only taking home 1200 per month but they have planned their life around an income of 2000 euro – getting a mortgage for instance. Or they did heaps of training and can’t get work outside the area they specialise in, such as PVC blade manufacturing.

Those who still work there are worried about losing their jobs so they won’t speak up about problems.

The main problem isn’t so much the money as the hours. The temping agency will give me different shifts at different work sites – not just at the wind plants but also on ships and at steelworks: day shift, night shift, day shift, night shift, and I never know where I will be working next. From my perspective as an organiser this affects my ability to attend meetings and so on.

I understand you have been singled out by management due to your trade union background?

Yes. As a casual worker I was dispatched to AMBAU by my temping agency – so for two years I was working there through the temping agency, as then as a contractor for another two years.
I have a big mouth but I am a hard worker. If politicians or people visited the plant I used to be presented as a model worker – a hard worker, and someone of a migrant background. I would do the welding on the connection points between the tower sections.

At some point they agreed they would have to give me a permanent job, because I couldn’t keep working fulltime as a contractor. They opened a new factory at Cuxhaven and I helped set it up – there were 150 workers there at the start and of this 20 were employed full time and the other 130 were employed either as casuals or contractors. I had raised with the union that something had to be done – in Bremen we had a works council but not at this new plant.

After I had been at the factory for three months the union started looking at how we could unionise the plant. The union was doing an organising program – there was even a visiting unionist from Australia who participated in this project.

Getting the place unionised was necessary – apart from the high degree of casualisation and contractualisation, one person for example was sacked simply for wearing a union t-shirt. Conversely, if we could unionise this plant then we would effectively have works councils in all branches of the company, which is important.

We contacted all 150 workers – not officially through the union – and earned the trust of people. Eventually it was time to elect a committee to organise union elections.

The company refused to allow this, but we went to court and the company was forced to allow it.
Then it was time to name our candidates. On the Thursday we confirmed three candidates and the union official was going to organise the meeting. Then on Friday I turned up to work and the other two candidates were not keen to name themselves but I thought I could name myself as a candidate as I was in charge of the shift for the day and had a good reputation. If elected to that position I am entitled under law to an office and a computer at the factory to organise union elections.

The company’s response was that I was summarily sacked on the spot with no reason given, and they instructed me to empty my locker out. My colleagues were appalled.

I came back on Monday, which was the day of the election of the committee, and the company had organised security to keep me out. However 90% of the workers inside voted for the establishment of this election committee to organise the election of a works council.

In the election four of the five people elected were from IGMetal and the fifth joined the union after.
I ended up deciding not to run in the election and there were negotiations with the union (which could have been better) and I ended up accepting a redundancy because I did not wish to work there anymore. What was important to me is that we were successfully able to unionise the place, some losses notwithstanding.

Since that incident the temping agency has sent me to jobs at AMBAU but when the company has found out it was me they sent me away again.

You are a Turkish migrant. Are you Kurdish?

No, I am not Kurdish. But [the community centre] supports the struggle of the Kurdish people – because they have rights. We have people here who are Kurdish, Arabic, Muslim and non- Muslim.

We try and get everyone together rather than only welcoming one sub-section of the Turkish community – we are on “another level’!

What is life like for Turkish people living and working in Germany?

I would say that the consciousness that you are here, you have moved to Germany, grows slowly. Both from the Turkish side and from the German side.

I was part of preparing a document about integrating Turkish migrants into the life of the city that was adopted by the Bremen government.

In the 1960s, Turkish people began migrating here and it is only now that we are being recognised.

It’s not perfect – there are some problems – but it is slowly getting better.

Even now the community centre here has a document for Turkish migrants explaining how the local school system works, but that should really be a job for local government. We are filling a gap that is left because local government is not really serious about this.

In Australia many climate activists look to the example of “green capitalism” in Germany and suggest that Australian governments should follow the German example and encourage these companies to get established in Australia. The idea is “fossil-fuel capitalism” bad, “green capitalism” good. Do you think this is a good strategy?

We all know that class consciousness has retreated. Politically conscious trade unionists and representatives of their class and class interests have become weakened -- because we don’t have good political parties any more. I have been a member of the Die Linke (the Left party) for the last two years but I find it difficult to identify with them, it’s more that they are the best of what is on offer.

The ideological background has become weakened. But people want to do something about problems in the world -- they know they need to do something… But then they remain in separate camps – on ecological issues, the rights of women, the rights of migrants.

So it’s not as if there is less activity, it’s that the longer-term perspective is missing.

Previously, in the works councils in the trade union movement here, there would be Marxist opposition groups. That doesn’t happen anymore, and these days there are right-wing SPD members occupying that space.

In my work with IGMetal I try and support the involvement of what might be called more “marginal” left groups like the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany, a Maoist group, or Trotskyist currents in Die Linke. Even though we may not agree on every point I think it is important to involve them because the ideological perspective they bring to the table is a healthy thing. The whole of class politics and union work has moved right in recent decades because people like this have been excluded.

To connect anti-capitalist politics with ecological politics, defence of the rights of women and so on, you need a certain ideological connection, and a strategic political project in order to achieve that.

Do you have any message for climate and renewable energy campaigners in Australia, or for progressives more broadly?

I am really pleased that there are people at the other end of the world who think similar things to me, and hopefully they are pleased as well that there are people in Europe doing similar things to them.

You should not feel alone.