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Radical Approach? German Firm Built On 'Equal Pay, Equal Say' For All Workers

CPP Studios, a German media group, has no union. It doesn’t need one. Except for its two general managers, CPP’s employees all earn the same amount. They also have equal say in hiring and other management decisions.

CPP Studios, a German media group based in Offenbach
CPP Studios, a German media group based in Offenbach
Sibylle Haas

OFFENBACH -- This is what salary negotiations look like at CPP Studios, a media group in Offenbach, Germany. At year's end, the whole company gathers and decides together what they're going to do with profits. How much will be invested, how much will be put back into the company, and how much employees will be earning in the year to come. Bonuses are handled the same way, as are salary cuts if business is not going well. All 32 of the people working at CPP, including the two bosses, have one vote each. Decisions are made by majority vote.

And the system works – because everybody at CPP earns exactly the same amount, whether they're 50 or 25, whatever job they do. Only the two general managers – Gernot Pflüger, 46, and Thomas Lutz, 49 – earn more because they bear the financial risk.

The one-salary idea occurred to Pflüger more than 20 years ago. A musician and journalist, he and some friends started an event technology company back in the 1980s. It evolved into CPP Studios, which creates and implements multimedia productions and events and has an annual turnover of over 5 million euros.

"When we started out, there were just a few of us, and we all earned the same amount," Pflüger explains. Even though the company grew, that approach to salaries didn't change. Only once was it challenged, when some older workers said they thought it was unfair. Discussions continued far into the night, and the upshot was a decision to pay younger employees a fourth less. It didn't work. Younger staffers started leaving early, no longer felt a spirit of ownership, and refused to take any responsibility, leaving that to the older, better paid workers. There was a lot of conflict. It wasn't long before the single salary was re-introduced.

No unions, but everyone has a say

There are no union members or employee organizations at CPP Studios. "This is grassroots democracy," says Pflüger. "Participation goes a lot further than it does with the unions." But Pflüger stresses that the company isn't some "namby-pamby collective; we are very competitive and want to be better than the competition," he says. So people work hard at CPP, sometimes far into the night when they have a project deadline to meet. People can stay over at the office if need be: it's equipped with guest cots and showers.

Salaries are not the only thing CPP staffers can decide on – they also have a say in hiring. "With hiring, a simple majority is not enough. If we get two or three people voting against hiring somebody, we won't do it," Pflüger explains. "It's important, because we work very closely together on projects and spend many hours together. The chemistry has to be right." The hiring of new people often goes through unopposed, which is why when there are objections the group discusses the matter at length.

Pflüger wants people to feel responsible for what they do, which is why there is no hierarchy at CPP. "The boss is whoever is managing a project. On the next project it's likely to be somebody else," he says. Staffers also decide on their own leave. "We take as much time off as we need to," Pflüger says, adding that so far nobody has abused the system. "When you give people responsibility they are much more careful and reasonable than is commonly assumed," he believes. If there is a problem with staffers it's a tendency to overwork, he says.

CPP Studios is located in an old factory. Graphic designers, filmmakers and camera persons work in the red brick building in Offenbach just outside Frankfurt. Contrary to many expectations, not everybody is young: the youngest staff member is 25, the oldest 52 and fluctuation is minimal.

Michael Wiederhold is 50. He was in banking sales, and met Pflüger when they played music together. He liked the concept of the company, and started helping out. That was 20 years ago. Today, he's in charge of everything from controlling to personnel and has power of attorney. The others smilingly refer to him as "our big management head."

Embracing "21st century freedoms'

In its 1600 square meter space, CPP has a small screening room and several recording studios, but the heart of the company is what Pflüger calls the "penguin colony." He's referring to the large open office space where he, Lutz, and everybody else work desk to desk. It's practical, he says: "if you have a question you just call it out and get an immediate answer."

The atmosphere here is one of ordered chaos: desks piled high with DVDs, papers, notebooks, files, sweets, empty coffee cups, and a lot of full ashtrays. But it's quiet: people are concentrating on the screens in front of them, working on a huge project for a car manufacturer – the communication strategy for a new car, says Pflüger, but more than that he will not say.

Pflüger is a complete believer in the way CPP functions as a workplace. "Our people have a lot of freedom: that's why they're so creative," he says. In his opinion, most companies haven't made it past the "late Middle Ages." "Many people leave 21st century freedoms at the door when they enter their place of employment. They let themselves be treated like children. It's crazy," he says. Hierarchical leadership styles serve nothing but getting people to work to rules – "companies can't go anywhere under conditions like that."

Unions function along exactly the same power principles, he says, and are guilty of "neoliberal thinking, instead of working in their constituents' interests." Which is why, Pflüger says, they've lost relevance "even though things are more propitious now for unions than they have been in a long time."

"People are afraid for their jobs, and many doubt that their kids will have a better life than they do," he adds. "So it's an ideal time for unions to get more members."

Read the original article in German

Photo - CPP Studios

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