East German Hunger Strikers Hope to Reverse Mine Closure

IN an escalation of east German resistance to mass factory closings, potash miners in the village of Bischofferode are putting their health on the line to save their jobs.

After sit-ins and protests beginning in April, "a hunger strike was our last resort," says Walter Kunze, member of the worker council at the Bischofferode mine.

Twenty-five men and four women are on the hunger strike. Four people have been hospitalized. The strikers want to undo a deal worked out by the Treuhand privatization agency in Berlin, in which the east German potash industry, Mitteldeutsche Kali AG, is fused with its competitor in west Germany, Kali & Salz AG, a subsidiary of chemical giant BASF.

Due to a 30-percent worldwide overcapacity in the industry, the plan calls for shared job cuts of 1,744 in west Germany and 1,884 in east Germany - including 700 lost jobs with the closure of Bischofferode at year's end.

There was another bid for the Bischofferode mine, from west German hauler Johannes Peine, who said he could make the mine profitable. But the Treuhand rejected him, saying that he lacked the expertise to run the mine, and that his concept was unworkable and required too much financing from the Treuhand.

Under the pressure of the hunger strikers, a compromise has been offered in which 700 jobs would be guaranteed through 1995 - although the mine would still close as scheduled. The jobs would likely involve an environmental cleanup.

But the workers reject the compromise agreed on by federal and state government as well as the Treuhand.

"The Peine offer would be acceptable to us. We just want a fair chance to see if we can make this work. If we can't, then close us. But we aren't being allowed the chance to prove ourselves," Mr. Kunze says.

In the next breath he accuses BASF of creating a monopoly through the fusion. "They're afraid of us," so BASF wants to shut Bischofferode down, he says. The workers say they will carry on the hunger strike until the European Community rules on the anti-trust aspects of the fusion, which is not expected until mid-August.

Kunze says the strikers have gotten 120,000 letters of support from all over the world. The strikers have called on east and west Germans to join them in protesting Bonn's economic policy. The workers' council also plans a mass demonstration Aug. 1.

The Treuhand, however, says it will not change plans. In an interview with the news magazine Der Spiegel, Treuhand board member Klaus Schucht said that "The hunger strike is irrational. People are fighting something that can no longer be changed."

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