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“There’s no more senseless drag than losing energy to friction”

Christine Jägle is the new head of the staff council – she is coming into office during a crisis

Freiburg, May 28, 2020

“There’s no more senseless drag than losing energy to friction”

Photo: Patrick Seeger

Since May 2020, the University of Freiburg’s staff council has had a new leader. Her job is to advise, impart, and shape policies that affect the whole community. Christine Jägle – who has been deputy staff council leader since July 2019 – is following Dr. Helmut Waller in the position. Together with her colleagues, she set some objectives for the coming period. Among these are the conclusion of a new agreement on working hours that should allow staff greater flexibility. Jägle is also aiming to change supervisors’ preconceived notions about the staff council. She’s not permitting the coronavirus pandemic to overshadow her coming into office.

Christine Jägle would like to improve the image supervisors have of the staff council. Supporting one group in asserting their rights doesn’t mean curtailing the rights of another. Photo:  Patrick Seeger

Covid-19 hasn’t exactly made the step easy, but the move hasn’t been a total washout, either. Christine Jägle had actually wanted to use the weeks between her election as head of the staff council and assuming office to make intensive preparations for her new task. “When you go from being a deputy to the actual leadership position, something really does change,” she says. But then along came the virus – and with it a flood of directives, rules, measures, and open questions. How could around 6,700 university employees go on working? Could it all be achieved by working from home? How would it be possible to support those who, for example, have to work and care for children at the same time?

The routine of the job had been turned on its head. Suddenly, exceptions were the rule. But Christine Jägle isn’t easily rattled. She's been on the staff council for nineteen years and has learned to be ready for any eventuality, to seek solutions, and to find them as well.

Deeply embedded and without illusions

Step-by-step, Jägle has made this job into her own. At first, she attended staff council meetings now and then. Listening to debates about special exceptions to the wage agreement, sunset clauses, and the State Employee Representation Act made her head spin at first. Jägle remembers with a laugh: “It was all legal gibberish to begin with. I was simply happy when I understood something now and then.” Yet little by little, she spent more and more time in the group and attended continuing education and training courses and became a permanent member who later was elected as an indemnified member.

Meanwhile, Jägle has become au fait with the most convoluted concepts in the State Employee Representation Act and labor law. On the shelves in her office there are row upon row of colorful, broad book spines that foreshadow pages full of fine print – the texts of laws, rulings, and opinions. She says, “There’s plenty to read. It’s exciting!” That fits well with someone who would’ve liked to have studied law, but in the last minute opted for her greater passion, German and Romance Studies. Jägle also handles the requests, routines, and accords that are part and parcel of the staff council’s work with ease. But her perception of the job has changed the more Jägle has immersed herself in it. Does having such deep insight into things lead to disillusionment over the years? Jägle shakes her head, “I never had illusions.”

Onerous and rewarding

Some employees reveal all their suffering to the staff council. Says Jägle, “There are certain areas of the university that just consume people, chewing them up and spitting them out one after another.” She knows about cases of harassment and bullying. Some have troubled her for years, she says. At the same time, Jägle adds that it was clear from the start – the job is onerous. Yet the other side of the coin is that her work is rewarding. She explains, “Building people up in talks with their superiors or colleagues, and showing them that there is a way out of the conflict together – that’s what I step up to the plate for – even when it isn't always easy.”

But sometimes the road leads to a dead end. The new head of the staff council describes that as “running up against the wall.” She says a big problem continues to be that many people still have limited-term contracts. Jägle says this isn't necessarily attributable to the university. She continues, “I’ve always experienced the chief administrator as someone who’s willing to share with us.” By contrast, the requirements the state has placed on the university up to now are really burdensome and their budgetary plans too demanding, including the plans to finance permanent positions.” Jägle expresses her frustration, saying, “Where’s the money supposed to come from? We’re not allowed to print it.”

A traffic light system as a remedy

Christine Jägle says she’ll stick to the staff council’s plans even though her term of office began during an exceptional situation. She shares her work primarily with eleven indemnified colleagues. A 25-member body works out common objectives, makes decisions, and sets resolutions. “Everyone in the group has the same rights,” she says. One of their most important tasks in 2020 is a new agreement on working hours. All staff members are to become eligible to work flexibly and benefit as a result. In addition, a new “traffic-light” system should help avoid overwork by signaling “stop” when a person has accumulated too many overtime hours. Implementing data protection policy is also a priority, but Jägle describes it as a Sisyphean task. “You really have to like it,” she says.

But she can handle the small stuff, too. It doesn’t always have to be a gargantuan job - or what she calls a “murderous undertaking.” The telephone rings often. Staff members have questions about their pay grade, parental leave, or want to know what they should do if they’ve been denied vacation. “I’m pleased when I can provide support in daily business,” she says.

Out among people

At the moment, the staff council – like the university’s other departments – is primarily working with the telephone, email, and video conferencing. That’s not always easy, especially for confidential, personal talks, during which you would really like to see the other person. As soon as it's allowed, Jägle wants to get in touch with the employees, and not just in the staff council’s headquarters located in the union building next to the rectorate. The team regularly presents the staff council at information stands in the faculties and institutes. It's a good opportunity to speak to university employees face-to-face. “We’d like to understand what makes the university tick, where things aren’t running smoothly, and where we can help,” she says.

There’s one weak spot that Jägle wants to address personally. She would like to dispel preconceptions supervisors and bosses have about the staff council. She says, “The image they often have of us is shaped by how staff councils are portrayed in the media.” Many worry that the university employees will immediately engage in industrial action as soon as the staff council shows up. But supporting one party in asserting their rights does not mean curtailing the rights of another. Jägle says, “We all want to do good work.” She adds that works best when we cooperate with one another rather than fighting. “There’s no more senseless drag than losing energy to friction.”

Rimma Gerenstein


University of Freiburg Staff Council