The following is the first of a planned series of interviews with Works Councils (Betriebsräte) in Berlin tech companies, conducted by the content team of Berlin Tech Workers Coalition.
For the first episode, we are very happy to hear from the recently elected Works Councillor at Cobot, a small Berlin-based software company.
What company do you work for and since when does a Works Council exist/are you part of?
I work for Cobot, which elected its first Works Councillor (me!) in October 2020.
How did the idea of starting a Works Council originally come up? Was there any specific incident, e.g. layoffs, disputes with management?
We had already been organizing amongst ourselves as workers for at least a year and a half before the election of the Works Council. There was no inciting incident for this; rather, many of us found organizing ourselves to be a natural fit with the values and mission of Cobot and its sibling community space (and former coworking space), co.up. Both organizations have their roots in coworking as an alternative to established models of working and aspire to set a positive example for the local tech industry as well. Electing a Works Council was a natural next step, one that was discussed frequently and accelerated by the onset of the pandemic in 2020: given the inevitable transitions ahead, we wanted to make sure we had a formal seat at the table going forward.
How did you organize in the beginning and find people to join the inner circle of the campaign?
We created our own communication channels and invited anyone to join who wanted to - leaving it up to each worker to decide how much they wanted to invest in organizing, if at all. Prior to the pandemic we also offered the option of meeting in person outside of work hours, and we look forward to doing that again safely one day soon.
Organizing the election itself happened organically, as we already had people interested in putting it together and are a very small company that doesn’t require a lot of people working on it.
Did you work together with a union?
Yes, we were in contact with ver.di through TWC’S Berlin chapter. A ver.di representative provided us with the information we needed to organize the election, and was also present the day we formed the election board.
How did you promote the idea of a Works Council to all your colleagues? How did colleagues react once you went public and did everybody know about Works Councils and how they work in the beginning?
As mentioned earlier, we had been discussing it since the early days of organizing, and it didn’t require a lot of promotion. Not everyone knew how Works Councils worked in Germany - partly because a significant part of our workforce moved here from other countries - so we had to get some additional information through TWC and our contact at ver.di. Both were valuable resources for this.
Was there pushback from management during the preparation and election phase? In which form, and how did you counter it?
There was zero pushback from management during the preparation and the election phase, and they were in fact very welcoming of the initiative - which is something we expected from the start. On our end, we did organize the Betriebsrat election quietly until we posted our notice for the forming of an election board, but that was in order to follow best practices. We’ve heard from some other tech companies in Berlin that their management has been much more hostile to their organizing efforts and sought to subvert Works Council elections in various ways, in one case going so far as to call the cops on them. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is absolutely not something that tech workers in Berlin should have to expect when forming a Works Council.
What are some things you did since the Works Council got established? Are there any particular topics that are of special interest to you and your colleagues in terms of workers’ rights? What are your plans for the near future?
My most frequent activities have been preparing, documenting and following up on the Monatsgespräche, which are regular, legally mandated meetings between the Betriebsrat and management. These revolve around discussing various matters pertaining to the company and the workforce, and generally take place once a month as the name implies. I have also been following and reviewing the hiring processes for our two most recent job openings, as well as reviewing and addressing various company policies that fall within my purview.
Since the US and countries in the EU have had the massive privilege of being able to vaccinate against Covid-19, I’ve also specifically been keeping tabs on how to adapt as a workplace. Cobot has been in remote work mode since early March 2020; eventually the circumstances that made this necessary will change, and we want to make sure that adjusting to the “new new reality” of post-social distancing will work for everyone. I’ve already been discussing what this will look like with management on behalf of the workers, and this will be an ongoing conversation for the foreseeable (and still rather unpredictable) future. It is my hope that this will also set a positive example for smaller tech companies in Berlin.
How did the pandemic and working from home affect your organizing campaign, day-to-day Works Council work and contact to co-workers?
Quite frankly, the only thing that truly affected organizing our Works Council election during the pandemic was the legal requirement to form the election board in person. It is my understanding that an exemption to this in-person rule was requested at the federal level and blocked in the Bundestag, on the grounds that it was not in the coalition agreement from 2017 - i.e., before there was an airborne viral pandemic. This is absurd, as were the lengths we had to go to organize our workplace as safely as possible when we should have been able to do this online, which is the case for every other Betriebsrat-related activity during corona.
Do you have any tips and best practices you would want to share with other tech workers who want to start a Works Council campaign in their company?
I’d like to encourage other tech workers to avail themselves of this tool, and to resist the different variations on “it’s just not how we do things” that they might be faced with in response. Having representation does not have to be antagonistic by default; it’s certainly not what motivates my work as Betriebsrat. To me, it is a recognition of the simple fact that the management and the workers of a company have fundamentally different positioning within the workplace from the outset, and this role exists to make sure that that works out for every worker. Why, exactly, should enforcing workers’ rights at your company not be “how you’re doing things”?
Thanks a lot for taking part in the interview and sharing your experience!
It is Berlin TWC’s aim to regularly present insights from Works Council activism in all fields of the tech industry. If you’re a Works Councillor yourself, or know a fellow worker who is, and would be interested taking part in this series, we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.