Redgum member Farida Iqbal sat down with a fellow co-operator visiting all the way from Germany to hear their perspectives on worker-cooperative life in Berlin.

At Redgum we don’t often get the chance to meet workers from other cooperatives. So it is great that Nico Salo from the Morgenrot Café, is in Australia. Morgenrot has got to be the coolest cooperative in the world! Read on and find out why.

Farida: How did Morgenrot begin?
Nico: Morgenrot started in 2002 with a few members (ten people I guess). None of them are still there, but I guess six people have been there for about ten years.

Farida: Why did people start the cooperative? Why not just get a regular job?
Nico: The café was and is part of a squat. Tutenhaus, or Drag Queen House, in Berlin. It was just a funny combination of doing a collective bar and living in a squat. There is a huge community of gay men in Berlin who do a lot of drag shows.

Farida: So let me get this right. A bunch of people were living together in a squat, and working together in a café on the drag scene. And then they turned it into a cooperative?
Nico: More complex. The squat existed for a long time. 20 years? I’m not sure. There weren’t just gay men, but mostly left wing people from East Berlin. Those people were, because of their experiences within the wall, pretty used to working in collectives.

But there were a lot of parties and events for the gay community. In 2002 a bunch of people decided to open the café. Before that, it was already something like a bar, but 2002 was before the Prenzlauer Berg (area of Berlin) became gentrified for white middle class people. Imagine an area of non-modernised houses.

By the way, they have already bought some parts of the squat. At the moment they are fighting for another part.

Farida: Incredible story. I think it’s hard for Australian people to even imagine this scenario!
Nico: Yeah, it’s really impressive. Last year we had an exhibition about the beginning and the restructuring process in the 90s. By the community – DIY.

Farida: So queer people tend to stick together, right? Is this experience of living in an oppressed community part of what made people start a cooperative business together?
Nico: I think, especially in Eastern Germany it’s more of an attitude against capitalism. Because of the communist socialization. Nowadays, you can find a lot of collectives in Germany, but none of them are really socialists at heart! This is really interesting to see (I grew up in Western Germany). When I moved to Potsdam and then to Berlin, I could feel the difference in people’s attitudes.

Farida: So in Eastern Germany anti-capitalist sentiment is still very strong then? People still have the memory of collective organizing? In Australia we got very simplistic media coverage when the wall fell. We were all told that East Germans hated communism. Were we lied to?
Nico: This is pretty sad. And yes. Some people at first were excited, curious and happy about “Western” standards and norms. But they all got really fucked over by Western investors. The education system and the pension, for example. They had a totally different currency, but everything was gone: educational attainment, grades, etc.

During the time of the wall, people had to work together because they had nothing. After the wall they had to adapt to the capitalistic system of competition and performance. Nowadays people are attempting to retry the solidarity system within
the capitalistic system. I would say this is the biggest challenge.

For sure they hate the Stasi.

I haven’t seen this kind of challenge anywhere else. People just don’t think about collectives. It’s really more in the left wing project landscape (not the left party).

Farida: So how are the workers’ rights standards for Morgenrot workers? How do wages and conditions compare other hospitality workers in Germany?
Nico: Officially we receive health insurance! This is pretty cool! In Germany your employer and you share it half each. And it depends on your wage. In Gastro, nobody gets health insurance. Officially we get the minimum wage and we have special contracts for people who want to apply for citizenship. It works like that because we have many people who migrate and
they need the money or just a job for a beginning.

Working for each other also means your behaviour has a direct impact on the group – positive and negative. We can carry a lot of things together, when we really try to communicate well and try to make a good job. I am still learning all of these things.

Farida: Great! Is it common in Germany for hospitality workers to get paid below the minimum wage? In Australia three quarters of hospitality workers are underpaid.
Nico: Yes, pretty common I would say, but we have a higher dependency on tips.

Farida: So what is it like when you work for each other, not for a boss?
Nico: I think for me it is working for the whole project. It’s not mine and it’s not me. It’s kind of a shared idea or ideology. People come and people go, guests are cool or stupid, but what we are doing, to keep this business going within these circumstances makes me pretty proud.

We have so many conflicts and fights, but in the end, there is always a way of making it work together. For sure there are hierarchies and negotiation processes that some people are not part of, but I don’t think everyone needs to be part of everything.

Working for each other also means your behaviour has a direct impact on the group – positive and negative. We can carry a lot of things together, when we really try to communicate well and try to make a good job. I am still learning all of these things.

Farida: Beautiful! I think we are learning the same kind of things at Redgum.
Nico: Yeah! We are not used to it. And cool!

Farida: It must be very inspiring for the queer community in Berlin to have a café that is run by and for the queer community. Is Café Morgenrot really loved by the queer community because of its contribution?
Nico: It’s complicated. In Germany, queer mostly means wlti excluding gay cis guys (women, lesbian, trans, intersex). And Prenzlauer Berg is not Neukolln or Kreuzberg where the queer people live. The café is therefore mostly visited by tourists, the
neighbourhood people and youth (because the young people don’t know where to go any more), and gay men.

We do have a lot of events for queers and also I work there. The team right now is mostly left wing men and women, gay men, lesbians and one trans person. Currently the money comes from tourists! They love our performances.

Farida: Drag performances?
Nico: Yes, from our gay cis men, who do drag performances and more. We also share a special kind of grumpiness. Most people in Berlin are so friendly!
The tourists also enjoy the non-stereotypical looking team and the DIY culture. Plus we are cheap and you can pay between 8 and 14 Euros for brunch. Depending on your status, you decide what you pay.

When you come to Morgenrot you can also expect fights in the team. And funny comments.

I am happy to have all of these experiences within a culture of solidarity and to have knowledge about it. I am happy that these places still exist all over the world to teach us. So that it’s going to stay alive.