Chanting through masks: Cosima Steltner on German labor activism

Chanting through masks: Cosima Steltner on German labor activism

Why We Wrote This

Cosima Steltner feels a solidarity with her fellow German steelworker union members – a spirit that transcends pandemic strictures. She is one of twelve 21-year-olds just entering their careers that the Monitor features in its interactive 21 in ’21 global report.

Bettina Engel-Albustin/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Cosima Steltner says the happiest moment of the pandemic period, for her, was being accepted to a labor studies master’s program. Her efforts to bring her fellow steelworker union members to rallies and demonstrations, she says, are "about jobs and lives. … That’s why I’ll always be on the streets."

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January 22, 2021

Düsseldorf, Germany

We gathered on the other side of the Rhine from the statehouse here.

It was a cold – German-winter-cold – October day. I stood with three friends in a square, taped off with plastic ribbon.

Normally labor demonstrations are jammed with people, arms waving, voices singing. It’s like a concert. We need to show employers we have strength with our numbers. We can also have fun: Barbecues in the union house, chanting; we all go for drinks afterward.

But it was corona times: Faces were hidden behind masks, bodies covered in winter clothing. Three thousand of us, standing in cordoned-off squares 6 meters apart. You hear chanting, but you don’t see mouths move. We can’t tell who’s speaking.

The steelworkers came in buses. The most famous strikes in German history have been in the steel industry. For white-collar workers, it’s normal to switch jobs every five to 10 years. But for blue-collar workers, especially in steel, many workers’ parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents worked at the same company.

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Steel work is very special. It’s a lifetime job, a lifetime connection. The stakes are higher for steelworkers, and the industry is going through dramatic change. And so, they were placed at the front of the crowd, near the stage.   

I’m not a steelworker. I work full time in compliance at Thyssenkrupp, a German steel and industrial engineering multinational. But I was elected to the labor union inside the company at 17, and now I’m also a volunteer organizer.

I spend hours a week on this labor organizing, unpaid. It’s become my life’s passion.

I don’t know why. I know I have privilege growing up in a part of Essen that wasn’t the richest but also wasn’t the poorest: My parents were architects, and we took holidays in a camper van.

Maybe it’s because I’m empathetic. I cry a lot. When I see couples getting married on TV, I feel their good fortune. When a child doesn’t have the money for art supplies for school, I feel bad. Germany is a rich country and it doesn’t have to be like this. I fight for people who don’t like to talk, or don’t have a voice in the labor force. There’s much to fight for.

Bettina Engel-Albustin/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Cosima Steltner, a steelworker union activist, cuddles up in pandemic lockdown with her cat at her apartment in Essen, Germany.

This was a Kundgebung, a rally. There were speeches, singing, funny posters. The communist party group was also there passing out flyers, just five people standing around with trumpets spitting aerosols everywhere while we’re all trying to stay safe!

The steelworkers have gone through a lot the past few years. Everyone wants job security, but the future is uncertain with the transition to “green steel.” At this rally, the steelworkers were asking state government to buy shares in our company.

In 2018, we did a 24-hour strike, with workers in nearly every city in Germany participating. We had to be able to show we can strike. The damage to the steel industry was €1 billion ($1.2 billion).  

My biggest pride as a labor organizer came back in 2016 when we struck a collective agreement for fair hours and wages for student apprentices of Thyssenkrupp. About 50,000 companies participate in the program, and it’s the main workforce entry point for many young Germans. But we weren’t protected by most labor laws; you could work three years and still get only minimum wage. This is crazy.

I was part of the working group that won that landmark agreement. I’m asked about it all the time. Just two hours ago, an organizer from Hannover called me to ask about a rule in the agreement.

As a teenager, I became an accidental union rep. I was recruited to run, and I won election against the man who founded the student-apprentice initiative in my company. It didn’t feel right. I cried in bed; I really struggled. Should I decline the role?

But my mom told me, “People voted for you. They placed their trust in you. You can’t just walk away.”

That was pivotal.

The union is a big part of my life now. I just started a labor studies master’s program – getting accepted was one of the pandemic’s happiest moments for me. Parents and friends warned me the degree will brand me “untouchable” with “normal” employers.

I get it. “Normal” companies will know I’ve spent years fighting for employee rights. But I have to do it. Studies will give me context for my labor work. Take the four-day workweek. I never want to be the person who simply says, “OK, a four-day week to save jobs.” I want to know everything: What will Labor 4.0 look like? What are long-term changes in industry?

Union work lives on personal contact. And the pandemic killed so many plans we had for 2020. Meetings, rallies, conferences.

At this October rally, the mood wasn’t the same as usual. No chance interactions with people you don’t know, no scrambling across crowds to say hello to friends. I’m sure friends came I didn’t even recognize in masks.

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Still, it was uplifting because – in spite of the cold, the pandemic, and only 3,000 attendants – people still cared to come. It’s about jobs and lives. Even friends who work in auto joined. That’s what these demonstrations bring out: the solidarity. That’s why I’ll always be on the streets.

And that’s where I hope to be in the coming spring. In our new round of negotiations, we plan demonstrations in 155 cities.

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