Disillusionment dividing Germany Reunification put jobs on the block

August 29, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

BISCHOFFERODE, Germany -- In the waning months of Germany's great industrial yard sale, in which the entire creaky Communist economy of the former East Germany has been put on the block, the potash mine of Bischofferode sits ugly and unwanted.

It features all the classic industrial ills of the East bloc -- antiquated machinery, bloated payroll, low productivity. There's even a lingering environmental mess. Over the years the mine's tailings have piled into an orange mountain that towers over nearby villages like a muddy Matterhorn.

Throw in a recession and flagging worldwide demand for potash and the mine seems a lousy deal at any price.

But as a gauge of Germany's rising east-west tensions after roughly three years of reunification, the Bischofferode mine is a good bet.

The government plans to close the mine as part of a deal to merge mining companies of the east and west, and resentful workers facing unemployment have settled in for a hunger strike.

The plight of the mine workers is typical among the "Ossis" of eastern Germany. After years of relying on the government for everything from health care to housing, they've run up against a system that asks for self-reliance even as it promises to take away their jobs. Once fearful of secret police informers, the miners now feel threatened by the faceless gray drones of

banks, bureaucracy and big business.

"This is not the market economy promised to us," says mining engineer Uwe Schroeter, one of 700 Bischofferode workers about to lose his job.

'Money rules the world'

"To put it bluntly, this is almost just as much a planned economy as we had before, with the difference that in this case other people are doing the planning. . . . We clearly have to realize that the politicians aren't the ones deciding, but that money rules the world. Basically, what we were taught in the old days [with anti-capitalism propaganda] we now personally experience."

Western Germans aren't much happier. Having grown comfortable in an era of growth and prosperity, they resent the raised taxes and lowered services brought on by the high cost of reunification. They're also weary of the carping Ossis, detecting in the laments evidence of Communist-bred laziness.

Mr. Schroeter and his co-workers, for example, would be guaranteed other jobs at their current salary for at least 28 months as part of the shutdown deal, paid for by taxpayers. But it's still not a good enough deal, the miners say, sneering at a settlement that most laid-off U.S. workers would leap at.

Thus have disillusionment and mistrust replaced the barbed wireand concrete that once separated East and West.

The troubles began when the German government built an agency from scratch, the Treuhand, to sell, privatize or get rid of more than 14,000 East German ventures, from steel mills to restaurants, which once employed 4 million people.

Today, all but 600 enterprises have been taken care of, with about one-sixth ending up on the scrap heap. The brutally swift work amid a sluggish economy has killed about 2.2 million jobs, and unemployment is running at 17 percent in the east, even after millions -- mostly women -- dropped out of the work force.

By the end of 1994 the Treuhand will have spent 270 billion deutsche marks (about $165 billion).

Convenient foil

All this has made the Treuhand a convenient foil for beleaguered politicians and just about anyone disgruntled with reunification.

Hardly a month goes by without some group of angry workers throwing eggs or dumping the commodity of their trade onto the steps of Treuhand headquarters, the great stone building that once housed Hermann Goering and the Nazi Luftwaffe. Potash miners have taken their shots several times already.

The worst action against the agency came in April 1991, when leftist terrorists assassinated Treuhand chief Detlev Rohwedder.

The Treuhand deal that set off the friction in Bischofferode was the decision to merge the eastern mining company Mitteldeutsche Kali withKali & Salz, its West German competitor and subsidiary of the giant multinational corporation BASF.

On paper, it seemed sensible enough. By 1990 the mines of East Germany had become so inefficient that their 30,000 workers were producing about the same amount of potash ("kali") as the 8,000 miners of West Germany. Even then, the West German mines were losing money.

"We had 40 investors who expressed an interest," says Treuhand spokeswoman Ulrike Grunrock, "and in all solutions that would have been possible, we would have kept fewer jobs than will be saved now under the merger solution."

To critics the merger smacks of a government-sanctioned monopoly in which eastern interests get the worst end of the deal. The deal also has aroused the suspicions of Germany's neighbors in the European Community, which decided to

investigate the merger to decide if it's anticompetitive.

Mine workers see darker forces at work -- a mysterious cabal of western bankers and businessmen that will eventually destroy all the eastern industries.

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