Red Flag: How (and why) to squat a hostel

Ver di trade union and hostel workers demonstrated in 2019. Photo: IMAGO / Snapshot

The former Wombat’s City Hostel is next to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Mitte – right across from Exberliner’s former office, in fact. The 80-room white building has stood empty for almost three years.

On April 30, half a dozen activists decided to do something about it. The “Hotels to Housing” initiative squatted the building and demanded that it be turned into a shelter for refugees.

From 10 a.m., banners were hung on the window: “Turn holidays into accommodations”. Up to 70 people gathered in the street outside. In the early afternoon, Berlin police forced their way inside and arrested everyone for trespassing.

The police might claim that they are just enforcing the law. But what does Berlin and German law really have to say about this occupation?

Since 2014, Berlin has a Zweckentfremdungsgesetz (basically: a diversion law) prohibiting leaving a residential space empty for more than three months. Lawyers could debate whether this would apply to a former hostel, but it’s obvious the owners of the building are breaking the spirit of the law.

Yet there is no enforcement mechanism. Town halls are supposed to kick down the doors of empty apartments and rent them out at market prices, while returning the profits to the owners (despite their illegal activity). But the districts almost never do this – they pretend they have no resources. Thus, when the rent ceiling was still in force, real estate speculators went on television to declare, without any shame, that they refused to rent apartments, that is to say that they were deliberately breaking the law. Not one of them ended up in prison.

The squatters were trying to impose the law. The policy guaranteed that the owners of the building could Pause the law without consequence.

In the case of Wombat, the squatters were trying to impose the law. When the police intervened, they guaranteed that the owners of the building could continue to Pause the law without consequence.

But there is more. Why was the old Wombat’s City Hostel abandoned? The owners, who run different hostels across Europe, said their location in Berlin still pays off.

In 2015, the 35 employees of this hostel founded a Betriebsrat or works council. This was an attempt to fend off poor working conditions, such as double shifts. The following year, they obtained a collective agreement including higher wages. It was (as far as anyone remembers) the first hostel in Germany with a works council and a union contract.

Did Wombat close his hostel just to break the union? Photo: IMAGO / Snapshot

From day one, the owners made it clear that they saw their employees claiming their basic legal rights as a “breach of trust”. Over the next few years there were countless reports of threats and intimidation from managers – including a spray-painted penis in the street that said “Fuck U Betriebsrat! The cleaning staff were contracted out and therefore separated from their colleagues. In response, the workers organized numerous demonstrations (which is how i knew this very determined and international workforce).

In 2019, Wombat management announced they were closing the Berlin site, due to “open hostility inside and outside the hostel”. In other words, they were explicitly retaliating against workers for organizing. It’s illegal in Germany – heck, it’s even illegal in the US. Workers’ councils enjoy such protections that their elected members cannot be fired — hampering the work of a Betriebsrat is a felony punishable by one year in prison. Closing a branch of a company to elect a board is about as illegal as it gets.

Here, however, the owners used a stupid legal loophole. They said Wombat’s Berlin was a separate company that had the same name and owners as the Wombat’s chain. As a result, no one was laid off – the company was just dissolving. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but this obviously goes against the most basic ideas of German labor law. There were even rumors that they were planning to reopen the hostel with a new workforce – the sign is still there, after all – but the pandemic got in the way.

Over the years, the police could have intervened to protect the legal rights of workers. Have they? No, they have always been on the side of the capitalists who break the law. If the police refuse to enforce the law, it’s no wonder housing activists are trying to take matters into their own hands. This seems to be the only way to solve the housing crisis in Berlin.

Nathaniel Flakin’s new anti-capitalist guide Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.

Linda G. Ibarra