Shaming German capitalism

March 3, 2009

Jeff Bale reports on how the firing of a German supermarket cashier has become a lightning rod for debate over the impact of the economic crisis.

ACCUSED OF stealing $1.63 and fired--and the courts say, "That's okay."

This injustice against grocery store cashier Barbara Emme has become a flashpoint in Germany over the last year as resistance grows against corporate bailouts and cuts for ordinary people.

Barbara Emme, known as Emmely, had been a cashier at in a Berlin branch of Kaiser's, one of Germany's largest supermarket chains. In January 2008, she was called into her manager's office.

After Emmely turned in her drawer at the end of her shift, the manager demanded that her personal belongings and her locker be searched. The search "turned up" two bottle deposit return slips worth a mere 1.30 euros (about $1.63). The amount was unaccounted for in her drawer. The manager accused her of having stolen them, and fired her.

Emmely acknowledges that she had the return slips, but said that she had cashed them in legitimately while shopping at Kaiser's a few days earlier. She insists, though, that her firing was in retaliation for her union activity. "It was just a pretense," she said in an interview with the left-leaning Berlin daily Tageszeitung.

Barbara Emme, fired after 31 years of work over $1.63
Barbara Emme, fired after 31 years of work over $1.63

For the previous eight months, the Verdi union that represents Kaiser workers had led what are known in Germany as "warning strikes." German unions often organize brief strikes during contract negotiations as a pressure tactic. Workers will strike for a day or two, return to work, and then strike again the next week or the next month.

Emmely was one of a handful of unionists at her Kaiser's store, and the last one to maintain the warning strikes throughout the fall of 2007.

THE UNJUST firing touched off a nationwide campaign in support of Emmely. Activists set up solidarity committees that led postcard campaigns directed at Kaiser management, boycotts and rallies in front of Kaiser stores. Supporters also went through the produce sections and placed stickers reading "Solidarity with Emmely" on radishes and bananas.

Emmely sued in a Berlin state court to have the decision overturned. The first decision in August 2008 sided with Kaiser, so she sued again. That verdict came in on January 24, 2009--and again the courts sided with management.

The verdict brought a fresh round of attention to the case--this time amid growing resistance to the government's plan to bail out corporate fat cats for the economic mess they've caused in Germany.

The degree of outrage is so great that politicians across the political spectrum have denounced the court's decision. The vice president of the German parliament and leading Social Democratic figure Woflgang Thierse called the decision "barbaric" and a "breach of trust."

Even conservative politicians have chimed in. Horst Seehofer, premier of Bavaria and close political ally of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, said, "I don't understand how a cashier can be fired because of 1.30 euros while managers who lose billions can keep their jobs."

A recent editorial in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper connected Emmely's case to a trend where ordinary workers are fired on the spot or without cause--and where the courts uphold the dismissals.

"The law is also there for the weak," writes Heribert Prantl in his column. "That's an obvious statement. Except the obvious isn't so obvious anymore."

Prantl's column, along with other media accounts, recall the comments made 90 years ago by the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in her assessment of the German revolution that began in fall 1918. She argued:

Here, too, bourgeois class justice was the net through which rapacious sharks escaped with ease, while it caught in its pitiless meshes every small, helpless minnow that ventured beyond the pale of capitalist law. Millionaire war profiteers escaped, or were condemned to pay ridiculously inadequate fines. The small thieves were punished with draconian sentences.

In this case, the "draconian sentences" were applied to someone who did nothing wrong--besides strike for better wages and for a better contract.

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