Paperwork nightmare – A creative way to strike by emergency services in Germany

Interview with work council/trade union members

(Translated from: Express 5/2021)

For a long time now, trade unions in personal services, care work, in hospitals as well as in day care centers and old people’s homes have been asking themselves the crucial question: How do you go on strike when other people depend on your work, or even when human lives depend on your own work?

At an ambulance service on the Swiss border, which is covered by the “DRK (German Red Cross) Reform Collective Agreement” negotiated between ver.di (service trade union) and DRK, the workers found a creative solution: They work, but while the collective bargaining dispute was on they refused to do the bureaucratic work that is necessary for the billing of services (e.g. with health insurance companies). Karin Zennig talked with two of the works council members involved in this “paperwork” or “billing strike”.

How did you decide to go on paperwork strike? Why did you resort to this method and not walk out ‘normally?’

Mira: The idea came from ver.di. So far, the paperwork strike has only taken place within the emergency services. Since it is almost impossible to go on strike when you work in emergency rescue services, another method was sought to draw the employer’s attention to the grievances and to strike without suggesting to the population that human lives could be in danger. This is the best method for us. After all, we don’t want to harm the population by not manning a rescue vehicle, but to put pressure on the employer – so we work and are thus entitled to wages, but the employer doesn’t get any money from those who pay for the services. By the way, we now talk about ‘billing strike’ instead of paperwork strike, because we don’t want to give the impression that we are only ‘striking on paper’.

What are the important issues? What are you demanding?

Dirk: In general, better wages, working hours and workplace arrangements. For example, it is always an issue that not all working hours are paid in the rescue service. Nationwide, it is common that for twelve hours worked, only 9.75 hours are paid. This means that every full-time employee in the rescue service works more than two hours ‘on a voluntary basis’ for every service each day. Under collective bargaining agreements, this is called ‘extended working time’ – legally, the employer thus circumvents the payment of ‘on-call time’, which would have to be considered working time according to rulings by the Federal Labor Court and the EU Court of Justice. For the first time in the 2018 collective bargaining dispute, we decided to go on a paperwork strike.

And how does such a ‘billing strike’ work?’ How is it different from a ‘normal strike?’ How much courage do you need to participate in a paperwork strike?

Dirk: In a paperwork strike in the ambulance service, everything that concerns billing is omitted. Normally, after a rescue or emergency operation, the data of the operation (location, transport destination, crew) with the data of the patient (name, address, health insurance, etc.) are sent to the billing office. A so-called transport bill is enclosed for this purpose. This certificate confirms that the transport has been carried out and thus provides the basis for billing. However, this ‘office activity’ is not actually in the paramedic’s or ambulance crew’s original job description. To refuse to perform this activity means that insurers aren’t billed, therefore they don’t pay out, and the DRK doesn’t get reimbursed.

Mira: I don’t think it takes that much courage, it just takes everyone sticking together and participating. I think it would be harder to have a strike by not staffing a rescue operation than just not billing.

How does the employer respond to that? What are their strategies?

Dirk: The employers are always trying to stop industrial action with targeted intimidation. In the last but one round of collective bargaining, the employer openly communicated that in the event of a strike, payment claims against the striking workers could be expected and that everyone should think carefully about whether they would take this on themselves.

Mira: In a well-organised company, a paperwork strike like this can quickly cause tens of thousands of Euros in damage, and employers naturally don’t like that. Here it is always good and important that we know that our union is on our side and that it informs our colleagues about reaction strategies and our rights during a strike.

Even in a paperwork strike, it’s about acting together. How do you organise the collective momentum, which gives the individual the necessary courage? How do you arrange going on strike? Who knows when they do what and why?

Mira: Yes, of course everyone has to participate. There are a lot of us in the union, so that’s not a problem. We do a lot of group chats and talk to each other personally. Everyone explains to the others what it’s about and how they feel about it. And when it’s not a pandemic, we meet with our union secretary and discuss what we need and how we can move forward together.

Is this method transferable to other areas? What positive or negative experiences with the strike and the organisation or reactions have you had with it that you would like to pass on to other colleagues?

Dirk: You mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this method is the most effective in bringing employers to their knees. Since workers don’t stop work, they continue to be paid in full and all other operating expenses continue as well. But the incoming flow of money is interrupted. So, it’s possible that an employer is driven into bankruptcy quite quickly. Those most responsible for strikes, like union reps or shop stewards should, if in doubt, always keep an eye on this situation and intervene in time.

Mira: I’m just imagining, for example, if a waiter goes on strike by bringing the food to the guest, but never issues a bill afterwards. Well, our employer was not very pleased, neither by the strike nor by the actions themselves. They’ve been used to their employees never raising their voices for years, but they have been doing so more and more often and louder and louder in recent years. In my opinion, the employers are also dealing with this in the wrong way. They make us look as if we have outrageous demands instead of finally valuing these professions more. What is very positive and resonates far and wide is the cohesion amongst us and the feeling that we can achieve something together.

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