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The Example of Sket (December 21, 1992)

This article looks at Sket, a heavy machinery combine [Kombinat] in Magdeburg, and describes how a once-venerable industrial enterprise was struggling to survive. With the disappearance of the Eastern Europe market, the company had to be restructured and jobs had to be cut. Worker protests forced management to come up with a new restructuring plan, but eventually a mid-sized company would be all that remained of what was once a large-scale enterprise.

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“Down with Wessism”*

Sket was once a venerable Kombinat; in the future it will be no more than a mid-sized company. The remaining workers are fighting for their jobs and against insensitive Western imports on the management level.

One morning, Meister Proper** was gone. Colleague Freimut Hengst eventually found him in Hall FG 50. There the Meister was lying, as if sound asleep. The chunky, bald head was resting on two mattresses; the giant body was covered with packing paper. Only the powerful fist, clenched in the salutatory gesture of the workers’ struggle, stuck out from behind the boxes.

Since 1986, the upright Meister Proper had stood guard in front of the factory gate of Magdeburg’s Heavy Machinery Kombinat Sket. Ernst Thälmann, as the Meister was called in proletarian life, was the patron saint of one of the largest industrial collectives in the GDR.

The three-meter-high monument by Gerhard Rommel showed the Communist labor leader from Hamburg without his cap for the first time. At the time, it was an artistic and political risk. With bare fist and bare head, the proletarian bore a fateful resemblance to the tidy Mr. Clean from the West.

But somehow the Thälmann workers liked their red giant. “No one asked who Thälmann was anymore,” says Hengst, a member of the works council,” it was a symbol of the workers’ identification with the enterprise.” For Sket workers, the sudden disappearance of their old Meister has become an omen for the threatening demise of their entire company.

Of the 30,000 factory workers once employed in eight Kombinat enterprises, just under 6,000 still work in the new Sket AG. At the time of the Wende***, Magdeburg alone had 13,000 Thälmann workers. Today, there are still 3,600 on the payroll of the main plant.

And even that is too many. Given the number of orders being placed right now, fewer than half of these workers would be more than sufficient. The dismantling of the workers’ leader has to be followed by the dismantling of jobs.

The decline of Sket has been steep. The Heavy Machinery Kombinat Ernst Thälmann was once the pride of the city. Along the four-lane expressway into the city center, Magdeburg’s largest employer greets strangers with a gleaming metal column upon which the company’s logo shines forth like the city’s coat of arms.

The old unity of city and Sket is still at the root of speeches by the chairman of the works council, Claus-Jürgen Wieblitz: “If Sket dies, the regions dies – Magdeburg [Magde-castle] will become Magdedorf [Magde-village].”

Its size and history make Sket one of those “industrial cores” that have recently come under the personal protection of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Horst Rehberger, Minister of Economics of Saxony-Anhalt, also promises, “The future of Sket will be secured.”

But how large the core should be in the future is the question. The basic question, says the chairman of the supervisory board, Bernd Kosegarten, is “the crucial test of economics versus politics.”

At the beginning of October, the Hamburg business consultant sent a new chairman of the board into this crucial test. The manager with the programmatic name Karl-Wilhelm Marx started off by toppling Thälmann from his pedestal. Then he announced a new restructuring concept. According to him, Sket would only be competitive if it had only slightly more than 1,000 workers in Magdeburg. With this, Marx had given the signal for the workers’ revolt.

* The invented word comes from the term “Wessi,” which is used to designate a citizen of the former West Germany –eds.
** Meister Proper is the German brand name for the cleaning product Mr. Clean – eds.
*** The German term Wende refers to the events that led to the downfall of the Communist regime in 1989/90 – eds.

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