Strikes may be orderly affairs with cake and corporate clout, but the rise of niche unions in Germany is threatening their power
“A working-class hero is something to be,” John Lennon once sang. For better or for worse, such romanticism rang true for many when the song was released in the 1970s and British miners flexed their muscles against the government over pay. Today, with British unions shrinking in size and influence, perhaps it doesn’t. Instead, nostalgic unionists have started to look enviously at other countries, where workers appear to be faring better. Germany is top of their list.
Those who are put off by the male pugilistic muster of British unions, or are alarmed by images of spectacular clashes between Spanish picketers and police, find German strikes refreshingly civilised – orderly, uniformed marches throng the streets with neat, professionally printed placards. They are sometimes even known to end in kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cakes).
Yet German strikers still have clout. This week German unionists proved that orderly disruption is still disruption when they staged walkouts for a 6.5% pay rise. Public transport, hospitals, nursery schools and local government took part in the strikes, as well as airport workers, leading to the cancellation of hundreds of flights. Although the German government currently refuses to budge, Merkel may be forced to summon mediators to avoid further strikes.
German workers are also envied for their corporate power. Their influence within larger companies is guaranteed by their seats on supervisory boards; this gives them a say in the hiring and firing of management and decisions over company strategy. Such a system is lauded by Ed Miliband, who is infatuated with the Rhineland model of consensual capitalism.
The historically inclined have sought to extrapolate the reasons for this from the country’s past. Their findings: although German trade unions were weakened in the 1990s, there has been no historic turning point when their power has been decimated, as in the UK. Some academic research hints that this idea may hold some truth: Niels-Erik Wergin of the London School of Economics contends that since the Thatcher years, “step by step almost all central institutions for multi-employer collective bargaining have been smashed” in the UK, whereas collective bargaining remained comparatively centralised within Germany until the 1990s. And Karl Koch of the London South Bank University actually thinks that German unions showed an “extraordinary resilience” despite the challenges of unification after the cold war, which “should be of interest to Britain”.
But underlying their veneer of success is a worrying trend; collective activity is taking a perilous new direction and even the larger trade unions are anxious.
Germany’s main trade unions have been haemorrhaging members for some time: membership to Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, the country’s largest umbrella union, has plummeted by 5 million since 1990. In contrast, niche professional unions that undermine collective solidarity by vying for specific pay and work packages for their individual groups are proliferating.
Germany now hosts a confusing array of different professional unions. Take the healthcare sector, which has more than a dozen independent organisations, including three different nursing associations and even a union for hygiene inspectors. Or the aviation sector, which includes the Cockpit Union, the Independent Flight Attendant Organisation, the Ground Workers’ Union and the Aviation Technology Union.
Reasons for the trend are complex. Familiar image problems beleaguer the big unions. They have failed to respond quickly to transformations in the modern workforce – such as the rise of female employment and white-collar workers – deterring younger generations from joining them.
The weakening of trade union negotiation power, which can be traced back to the large-scale unemployment and competition for jobs that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1990s, may also have instilled the German union industry with a ruthless, individualistic streak, from which groups eager to scramble for scant bargain pickings have sprung.
The appeal of niche unions may be rooted deeper still in the German psyche: perhaps the capitalist transformation of the country’s desolate economy after the cold war has imbued Germans with a pragmatism and certain imperviousness to romantic ideals of worker solidarity.
The rise of small unions is worrying. It indicates the crumbling of a system where blanket labour contracts can be negotiated for entire industries or firms. Collective agreements have been crucial in safeguarding the labour that has driven Germany’s economic growth. Their demise could seriously endanger its future.
Nor may the development be good for workers in the long term. The Confederation of German Trade Unions is rightly petrified that niche unions will destroy their ability to bargain collectively on the behalf of different professional groups working in the same sector or within the same large company.
Although large trade unions and politicians are consequently pushing for legislation to reign in their powers, it is unclear whether they can stem the tide of niche unions. After all, they are increasingly popular. These days in Germany it seems it’s not so much a working-class hero as a small-time champ that’s something to be.
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