The “Jobcenter” is the largest provider of income in the Neukoelln district of Berlin. It is here where people from the district come together – the young and the old, those with a Ph.D. and those without a school leaving certificate, those who have been around forever and the newest district residents. For this reason, the Jobcenter as an institution has not only a great influence on the district – it is also a (potential) place for intervention against disfranchisement and exploitation.
Since their inception in 2005, Jobcenters have been in constant crisis. This is evident in the long waiting times, late payments, a much too high mentoring ratio (the number of “customers” to be mentored per caseworker), as well as in the appeals and legal actions filed against Hartz IV decisions. In Berlin-Neukoelln, there are around 1,500 appeals each month. The ground is shaking, yet each struggle remains individualized and invisible. How to overcome individualization?
In 1880 Karl Marx drafted a “Questionnaire for Workers”. It was intended to help analyze class relations, on the one hand, and encourage reflexivity of the respondents with regard to their situation and support their organization, on the other. Italian Marxists organized a “Con-ricerca” (collaborative investigation) in 1960 at FIAT in Turin with the aim of throwing light on the “invisible” forms of workers’ resistance. Marx’s questionnaire and the Italian Con-ricerca are examples of “militant”, or intervening, research projects.
This method provided an interesting point of departure for political praxis against the Jobcenter: instead of pounding the ‘right’ kind of consciousness into the people, we are searching for commonalities in people’s daily lives and examples of resistance. In this sense, the method has much in common with community organizing concepts that arose in the 1940s in the United States. Community organizers rejected the notion of doing social work for poor residential areas; they wanted rather to empower the residents to fight for and develop the means of asserting their interests.
Our “militant investigation” began in the spring of 2010. Its first aim was to feel out and politicize grievances, to understand the way the institution functioned, to discover and expand existing resistance practices and subversive knowledge, and, finally, to be part of a process of self-organization. To these ends, we have made progress.
The 80,000 “Unseen” of Berlin-Neukoelln
Around 80,000 people in 40,000 so-called ‘households in need’ draw benefits from the Jobcenter Neukoelln. These include persons receiving benefits to top off earned income in order to reach subsistence level, persons with “1-Euro jobs”, persons in continuing education programs, as well as family members. These are the numbers in a district with approximately 310,000 residents! In this sense, the role of the Jobcenter in Neukoelln is comparable to that of Volkswagen in Wolfsburg or FIAT in Turin. Yet despite its central role, the Jobcenter is barely a topic of discussion in the public sphere. The Jobcenter and the problems it produces for the neighborhood and its residents are simply not present. This certainly has to do with the fact that people don’t like to identify with unemployment and Hartz IV due to continued stigmatization.
The magnitude of the group of persons directly affected (those who must go to the Jobcenter) is augmented by the large number of persons indirectly affected. Those indirectly affected are persons who do not have to go to the Jobcenter at present, but who, for example, had to do so in the past, those who are afraid of becoming unemployed, or those with friends and acquaintances fighting for their rights at the Jobcenter. Indirectly affected persons therefore tend towards solidarity and can, too, be mobilized to fight against the Jobcenter. For now, these are hypotheses – not facts! – which we need to review in our political praxis.
How the machines of powerlessness work
The Jobcenter is an inscrutable, bureaucratic machine with countless committees, levels of expertise and feedback structures. The governance structure can be described as a great frenzy and madness. In the entire governance structure can be found: a sponsors’ assembly, an advisory board, an executive board, a municipal alliance for labor, a “framework program for labor market politics”, and various framework agreements between the federal agency and regional authorities, from which working directives for the various levels of the Jobcenter come. These framework agreements are kept under seal.
In any case, transparency is not exactly a forte in the administration of poverty: there is neither information about the “social sheriffs” who also pay visits to people in their homes, nor is anything known about the sanctions that the Jobcenter imposes. Even information regarding sponsors, organizational structure, and the number of measures will not be shared. Secrecy and the hubbub of technical ‘expertise’ have a disciplining effect: the give the “customers” the feeling of debilitation and powerlessness.
That the Jobcenter is so chaotic can in part be attributed to the precarious situation in which its staffers find themselves. In total, 750 staff members work at the Jobcenter Berlin-Neukoelln. This may sound like a lot, yet this number refers to workers in all areas – from cleaning services to security. Caseworkers (who invite one in and to whom one must justify him/herself) have a mentoring ration of 1:130. This means that one caseworker is responsible for 130 persons. In reality, it is often twice as many. The weight of this burden is evident in the fact that the number of staff members out sick is permanently 20‑ 30 percent of staff.
Work at the Jobcenter is organized according to a controlling and ranking system in which teams of 15 caseworkers are played against one another. In this manner, teams are judged relatively to one another in categories such as integration in the labor market, imposed measures, and sanctions. There is a table displaying which team is in the lead and which is in last place – accompanied by the consequences for the working climate that can be expected to go hand in hand with such practices.
20 percent of the caseworkers have temporary employment contracts. Some describe their job as a “hamster wheel”, which should not hide the fact that some opt to do this work because of the feeling of having power over others that accompanies it. Because the Jobcenter is a place of mass individualization, it is difficult for “customers” to develop consciousness as a collective power. The Jobcenter creates insecurity, repeats and renews societal hierarchies, discriminates according to migration background, level of education, age, gender and habitus, and divides people into the categories “close to the labor market” and “far from the labor market”.
To simplify things, it can be said that there are two distinct class types at the Jobcenter. On the one hand, there is the “hopeful” Prekariat, with access to formal higher education and modern communication media. Most such persons find temporary work or go freelance, but many end up back at the Jobcenter. These unemployed persons practice “resistance” by attempting to remove themselves from the grasp of the Jobcenter.
The second group seems to be the part of the Prekariat that has been “left behind”. It is poorly qualified (in terms of the qualifications demanded by the labor market). Many persons in this group are older, do not have an email account, and cannot be reached via mobilizations that take place online. In order to be accessible for this group, telephones and mailing addresses take on a new, old relevance as communication media.
Beyond this and traversing all of these differentiations, there is a large number of persons at the Jobcenter with migration backgrounds. The racist treatment and discrimination practiced by the Jobcenter is a problem that affects unemployed persons from both groups described. The stubbornness with which payments are denied, the designation in “foreigner’s German”, and the posing of prodding questions to women who wear headscarves are not exceptions, but the rule.
Organizing at the Kiosk and on the Ballfield
Our decision to try out community organizing methods arose from our experience at the “Meetings against the Jobcenter Neukoelln”, which we initiated and to which we invited people in conversations we had with them in front of the Jobcenter. After approximately six months, we decided to discontinue the meetings. We were not able to establish continuity in this new space. One-time meeting attendees usually did not return.
The meetings were an opportunity to exchange information. This is important and a solid start, but our purpose aims further: we want to play an instrumental role in creating a cohesion capable of acting that deals collectively with the problems created by the Jobcenter.
After these experiences, we are now going to places where people already meet each other and exchange and organize (even if they would not use these terms themselves): in front of late-night shops and kiosks, in parks, religious communities, sports and cultural organizations, neighborhood meeting spots and congregational buildings. In these places, people talk about their problems, seek advice and organize support. One example is seeking out persons who, as witnesses, accompany people to their appointments at the Jobcenter.
In the conversations and interviews we held in front of and inside the Jobcenter, the discrepancy between the meaning of the Jobcenter for the district and its representation in the district became evident. Therefore, a next step for the militant investigation project is to address the Jobcenter in Neukoelln and the problems it creates – to make these an issue. We are beginning to do publicity work in the district, to name the problems, to scandalize.
Conventional publicity and media work will be an important part of this effort. A further step is a series of posters that have been hanging around the district for some weeks now. From (labor union) organizing efforts, we know about the importance of confronting decision makers with the grievances at the Jobcenter. Without putting pressure on decision makers, the institution will not change.
In order to find out which one of the countless problems confronting people at the Jobcenter is the “hottest” (meaning the topic that creates the most outrage and therefore would be the most effective in mobilization efforts), we have created a new questionnaire, with which we will once again begin conversations at the Jobcenter and in the district. In this manner, we want to formulate demands and fight to assert our rights in this institution.
In their book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Francis F. Piven and Richard A. Cloward define disruptive power as the only power resource available to the resource-poor milieu of the impoverished. Disturbing business operations with blockades and overstraining the bureaucracy (for example, filing claims en masse) are possibilities to aggravate the institutional crisis of the Jobcenter. However, such actions bring about new problems, as we know from the agency-closing campaign in 2004-05. For example, people would not be able to access the benefits department on that day in order to get an advance, or attend other appointments. Yet it is also clear: only when the institution blatantly no longer functions (well) does pressure to act affect the decision makers.