YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

National Agenda : German Miners Tap Deep Vein of Workers' Anger : Hunger strikers are martyrs for easterners upset over plant closures, layoffs and privatization.


BISCHOFFERODE, Germany — In what used to be the busy cafeteria of the Kali-Bergwerk potash mines here, gaunt men now doze on narrow cots or play cards with trembling hands, pausing occasionally to accept flowers from well-wishers or to read the latest solidarity fax from Ireland or Colombia or Washington.

On the sheets of cardboard used as walls in this stale, makeshift dormitory, someone has painted a giant warning: "Quiet, Please! Hunger Strike." This strike is anything but quiet, though.

A month into united Germany's most dramatic labor standoff, the stakes are much higher than the 700 jobs the hunger strikers hope to save in this 85-year-old Thomas Muentzer pit, which is scheduled to shut down at the end of the year after a forced merger with a western German competitor.

Refusing all food until they have to be carried out on stretchers, two dozen miners and a handful of fasting sympathizers have become martyrs of an increasingly angry eastern German work force, and the consequences, experts warn, could be severe.

Other factories in the formerly Communist east are already threatening hunger strikes to protest plant closures, mass layoffs or privatization. Sympathizers have sent more than $100,000 in donations to the Bischofferode protesters, and an estimated 10,000 people turned out for a recent weekend solidarity rally in front of the plant's gates in the rural Thuringian village near the former border with West Germany.

One trade unionist warns of a "flash fire" across eastern Germany, while western observers privately worry that the strike is a plot by the discredited former East German Communist Party to destabilize the impoverished region in the run-up to next year's national elections.

"There are some indications this might spread," said Ulrike Gruenrock, spokeswoman for the Berlin-based Treuhand trust, which was established after unification to privatize East Germany's state-run industry.

Pointing to the growing bitterness, disillusionment and sense of betrayal in the struggling eastern region, a sociologist who researches unemployment remarked: "Much more is in play here than joblessness."

The sea change is also evident in the government's response to the relatively tiny uprising in Bischofferode--unprecedented capitulation. But the government's astonishing promise of replacement "jobs for life" for the displaced miners is not enough.

"We want unity, and a single Germany," said Rudolf Jendreck, a 50-year-old father of three who hadn't eaten in two weeks, "but we don't want a Germany like the one that is emerging now. We believe we can achieve something here."

"Here" is a quaint, half-timbered village dominated by the bald, red mountain where 1,900 miners once toiled, burrowing nearly 20,000 feet into the earth for the fertilizer that was sold even during the Communist era to West European markets.

But citing a worldwide glut and a price collapse, the Treuhand decided that creating a German monopoly was the only way the potash and raw salt industry could survive at all. And Bischofferode was the price.

By merging the eastern potash producer Mitteldeutsche Kali AG with its western competitor, the BASF-owned Kali und Salz AG, the Treuhand has created a marriage of convenience that demands some sacrifice on both sides.

The westerners will have to trim about 1,700 jobs and the east will lay off 1,800, but five mines in the east will be able to stay open, with only the least profitable--Bischofferode--closing.

In exchange, the Treuhand, which is funded by the Bonn government, will sink 1 billion marks (more than $606 million) into the Kassel-based Kali und Salz for renovations--money that the embittered easterners say rightfully belongs to struggling eastern companies.

"There is a different mentality in east and west Germany about unemployment," said Goettingen sociologist Berthold Vogel, who has researched joblessness in the eastern sector.

"In the former German Democratic Republic, joblessness is not so much an individual problem, like it is in the west," he said in a telephone interview. "It's more of a collective problem.

"There were big expectations in the east after 1989," Vogel said. "No one figured on the consequences. These miners want what was promised--a free market. Now they're discovering there are also cartels in capitalism."

Indeed, keeping the eastern potash industry alive on its own would hardly set a precedent in Germany, where the Bonn government for years has heavily subsidized uncompetitive industries such as steel and agriculture.

And while Bonn's offer of "replacement" jobs for the Bischofferode miners through 1995 was an unprecedented concession for displaced eastern workers, and the state government's promise of jobs for life was even more astonishing, the striking miners insist that they want nothing more than the chance to compete in the free market.

Los Angeles Times Articles