IN WHAT has been easily the most dramatic act of protest against privatisation plans in the former East Germany, more than 40 potash miners yesterday entered the third week of a hunger strike aimed at reversing a decision to close their mine.
The hunger strike under way at the threatened Bischofferode mine in the state of Thuringia, has attracted nationwide interest and raised serious questions about the practices of the Treuhand agency set up to sell off, clean up or close down more than 12,000 state-owned firms.
Although few independent observers expect the miners to succeed in their aim, their action has prompted a unique response from the government: the offer of guaranteed alternative jobs for all 700 workers at the mine for at least two years after closure at the end of this year.
Today the hunger strikers are meeting to decide whether to continue their protest. Although some yesterday appeared ready to accept the compromise, others seemed determined to fight on. 'All the colleagues who would have trouble getting a job now will have even more problems two years on,' said Gerhard Beckert, one of the strikers. 'This (offer) only postpones the problem, but cannot solve it. For us, there can only be one solution - keeping the mine open.'
The planned closure of Bischofferode comes as part of a complex merger deal between the mine's owner, the Mitteldeutsche Kali AG, and the west German potash mining group, Kali und Salz AG. Under the deal, which was agreed with the Treuhand, both companies were obliged to shed some 1,800 jobs apiece at their various potash mines in east and west Germany - but only the Bischofferode mine was designated for closure.
Backed by the government and even the miners' union, the Treuhand defended the deal on the grounds that there is global over-production of potash and that, for its survival, Germany's potash mining industry had to be reduced. 'As the least profitable mine in both groups, Bischofferode was the obvious one to close,' said Ulrike Grunrock of the Treuhand. 'We understand the pain and the anger . . . But much of the protest comes from the old East German 'jobs for life' type of thinking. They have to accept that things move on and that the world market does play a role.'
Critics of the deal, who include Thuringia's Prime Minister, see it very differently: Bischofferode is being closed because it is a serious rival to the west German company. Once again, they say, east Germans are suffering from unification while westerners reap the rewards. 'Sold down the river by the Treuhand,' proclaims a placard in the canteen where the 42 hunger-strikers have set up camp.
'They are from one of the poorest and structurally weakest regions in eastern Germany and, for many of them, if the mine goes that will be it,' said Thomas Kuczynski, economics editor of Neues Deutschland, the former Communist Party newspaper. 'For many of them it is a case of 'If we fight we might lose, but if we do not fight, we have lost already'.'
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