In recent years, the political far right has increasingly rediscovered the workplace as a battlefield for itself and is trying to position itself there as an alternative to the established trade unions. Many of the worries and needs people have are directly related to the world of work – so it’s no wonder that right-wing radicals see this as a good breeding ground for spreading their explanations and supposed solutions.
Our 34 projects in the federal program Initiative for Workplace Democratic Competence work with different approaches to outreach work in the workplace. The project „Betriebliche Demokratie stärken – Rassismus und Rechtsextremismus im Betrieb bekämpfen“ of the DGB Bildungswerk Baden-Württemberg pursues, among other things, the approach of intervening specifically in workplaces where there are right-wing radical mobilization attempts. On the occasion of a project visit of our DGB coordination project in Stuttgart, our intern Max Leurle conducted an interview with project staff member Lukas Hezel to shed more light on this workplace intervention work.
Hello Lukas, you are part of the program Initiative für betriebliche Demokratiekompetenz and want to strengthen workplace democracy with your project. How do you do that and who do you address with your project?
In our project, we work with an approach that goes back to the Leipzig Authoritarianism Study of 2020. The results of the study showed that employees who experience participation, solidarity and recognition at their workplace have a significantly more positive attitude toward democracy and are less likely to adopt discriminatory and right-wing extremist attitudes. As a trade union sponsor, we have an in-depth understanding of participation and co-determination processes in the workplace and can incorporate this into the development of our approaches.
What are the challenges and conditions for democratic action in the workplace?
For us, it is important to always think of workplace democracy from the perspective of conflicting interests. Companies initially pursue economic interests, which is why corporate decisions are usually made according to economic criteria rather than democratic ones. In company committees, employees also have the opportunity to introduce and represent their interests with regard to their working conditions. The representation of employees’ interests functions particularly well when works councils are guided by the above-mentioned principles of participation, solidarity and recognition.
How are these principles put into practice?
For us,participation means, for example, that the works council does not do its work in the back room, but should always involve employees as actively as possible.
Solidarity means that employees must not allow themselves to be divided, because otherwise internal democracy would be weakened. For a strong co-determination of the workforce, all employees must pull together as far as possible, regardless of whether they have a migration background or not, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual or whatever.
For us,recognition means that every person in the company is taken seriously and listened to, regardless of whether they are a migrant cleaner or a skilled worker of German origin. Only if the workplace actors, works councils and trade unionists have an open ear for everyone and listen to people, can they also represent their interests and successfully include them in disputes. This is a building block for living democracy in the workplace.
Your project title links workplace democracy and right-wing extremism. Why? To what extent are workplace democracy and right-wing extremism linked?
Unfortunately, the extreme right has increasingly rediscovered the workplace as a political battlefield in recent years. That’s where most people spend a large part of their lives. Many worries, hardships and fears are directly related to the world of work, be it that the wage is not enough to live on, that the workload makes people ill or that people have to fear losing their jobs. To make a long story short, there is hardly any other place where people experience social conflicts more directly than in the workplace. The experiences of powerlessness, being left behind and the threat of social decline that many people have at work every day are the perfect breeding ground for the pseudo-explanations offered by right-wing extremist pied pipers. So it’s no coincidence that we’re feeling the social shift to the right more and more in the workplace as well.
How do you sense this? How does this shift to the right manifest itself in the workplace?
Here in Baden-Württemberg, for example, there has been a pseudo-union for over ten years, the “Zentrum Automobil” association, which was set up by a right-wing core group from the right-wing rock and neo-Nazi scene. Today, this association works closely with the AfD. During the corona pandemic, many people also became radicalized in the course of the “lateral thinking” movement and tended to move to the right politically. We are also noticing this in the workplaces, especially in the care and social sectors. The often justified dissatisfaction and indignation is diverted to some scapegoats by absurd conspiracy theories instead of standing up for real improvements, as for example recently demonstrated by the ver.di colleagues during the strike movement at the hospitals in North Rhine-Westphalia. In our view, the fight against right-wing extremism and racism cannot be separated from the existence of a strong workplace democracy and the possibility of shaping one’s own working environment.
What does your approach look like in practice?
We see our main task in supporting works councils, JAVs, store stewards and generally employees directly on site in the affected companies. This requires a lot of research work, since the right-wingers often do not reveal themselves as such at first glance. They often try to fly under the radar as a seemingly harmless “alternative” to the “established unions”. We monitor these developments very closely in order to be able to intervene in time.
As a first step, we try to raise awareness among the workforce as broadly as possible in order to counteract the right-wing’s strategy of playing down its own interests. All people in the company should know who they are dealing with. This at least reduces the pool of employees who can be approached by the right-wing by those who might have simply joined in out of naivety and ignorance. But of course that’s not the end of the story. As a rule, we support the affected companies over a longer period of time and try to develop a long-term practical counter-strategy together with the employees at the grassroots level. The focus is always on the approach of not only showing a clear edge against right-wing radicalism, but also creating a lasting basis for experiences of participation, solidarity and recognition, together with the colleagues.
How can you be reached if you are interested? How can they support you or get support?
As a project, we work across all sectors, which means that all employees, and more concretely also works councils and DGB trade unions, can fall back on our support. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a case at the railroad, in a hospital or a large industrial company. Both employees in the company or enterprise as well as responsible trade union secretaries can contact us at any time in an uncomplicated manner. We prefer to come directly to the company to see for ourselves on site.
As a regional project, we are actually only responsible for Baden-Württemberg, but we are happy to share our experiences with colleagues from other federal states. Conversely, we are of course always grateful for useful tips and research advice.
The interview was conducted by Max Leurle, who completed an internship in the coordination project within the program.