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The case of Riesa Pasta - and what it reveals about the bubbling East

For a good four weeks, Mathias Jähnigen has been loading his trunk with a power generator and beer tables every day: material for the picket line in front of the pasta factory in Riesa.

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The case of Riesa Pasta - and what it reveals about the bubbling East

For a good four weeks, Mathias Jähnigen has been loading his trunk with a power generator and beer tables every day: material for the picket line in front of the pasta factory in Riesa. "In order to be able to work in this pasta shop, you need a spouse who earns well," scoffs the 54-year-old from Saxony. He gets 14.08 euros per hour – significantly less than his wife, a teacher. “That is only two euros difference to the increased minimum wage. This is a step in the mud for the profession of plant operator,” he fumes. It's the specialists like him who keep the plant running.

A wage dispute escalated in the Saxon province. Front foundation is only about a wage increase at Pasta Riesa. But the strikers see their company as a "figurehead" in a growing wave of dissatisfaction, a conflict affecting all of Germany. For a few weeks now, many people in Saxony have been demonstrating against politics - in a diffuse mixture of suspicion of Germany's Russia policy, the Corona measures and concerns about the economic crisis. This resentment could also affect the economy.

It is not only inflation that is increasing the pressure to raise wages, but also the minimum wage, which recently jumped to twelve euros, a promise made by Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD). Especially in the east, the minimum wage increase helps many people, but also messes up the wage structure: Not only at Riesa Pasta, unskilled temporary workers may earn more in the future than experienced long-term employees.

On Wednesday, the local protest from Riesa should reach the capital for the first time. Machine operator Jähnigen will then not unpack his beer tables, but will drive to Berlin with his colleagues. The route to the Reichstag has already been determined: from Riesa in Saxony via Elsterwerda with the regional express to Berlin Central Station, then a few hundred meters on foot. The date is symbolic: November 9th, the day the Wall came down.

Because the traditional brand Riesa Pasta stands for East German identity. Unknown in the west, it is so famous in Saxony that the company can charge a fair amount of money for guided tours of the plant: six euros, which is at least half the new minimum hourly wage. But the profit from the pasta, in 2020 it was 1.9 million euros, does not stay in Saxony.

Since the reunification, the East German pasta market leader has belonged to Alb-Gold Pasta, a typical old German family business based in the Swabian Jura, run by the founder's daughter and her two sons. "They thought that labor in the East was always cheaper than in the West. But things can't go on like this,” Cathleen Frohberg fumes. The 48-year-old retail clerk switched to the pasta factory eleven years ago because, as a single parent, she could no longer get by as a bakery seller with her hourly wage of EUR 6.01. With the high inflation, their 12.51 euros per hour are not enough. Frohberg is therefore passionate about the strike.

The plight of the low-wage workers is helping the unions gain a foothold in the institution-critical east. Olaf Klenke, state district secretary at the responsible trade union NGG, wants to use the second strike within two years at Riesa Nudel to show what the trade union can bring to companies in the east. "The family who own the company can't deal with the fact that we set up a works council here a few years ago and enforced a collective agreement," he says, referring to the achievements of the employees.

The strikers recently demanded a wage plus of one euro in two steps, but the company only offered 70 and 50 cents. The company would probably cost around half a million euros a year for its own offer, according to the figures from the Federal Gazette. "The pasta boom from the Corona period is nice, but we are an energy-intensive company. Durum wheat has also become enormously expensive,” complains a company spokeswoman. In addition, there is a threat of new competition: Lidl has just taken over another large pasta manufacturer.

Trade unionist Klenke sets the big picture against such details. “People perceive payment at minimum wage level as a devaluation of their work. And then the politicians in the capital ask again: Why is the East so frustrated?” He justifies the strike motto “Tear down the low-wage wall!”

The historical allusion in turn provokes Riesa Pasta Managing Director Mike Hennig, who withdrew his offer at the weekend. A specially hired PR agency sent a quote from the manager about the planned protest in Berlin: “Firstly, politics should stay out of collective bargaining, secondly, we should remember what we owe to November 9, 1989 and, thirdly, who supported us when supported construction in East Germany.”

But the impression that after three decades the owner family from Swabia still longs for gratitude for having run the GDR business in the market economy spurs on the strikers even more. “We are just as involved in the fact that we are professionally in the East. We cannot back down now,” says packer Frohberg. The strike continues.

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