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Rebellious unions upend German order

Germany has a tradition of good relations between unions and employers, but as support erodes for well-established groups, workers are joining smaller unions willing to buck the consensus.  

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In Germany, strikes cost employers an average of only four work days a year per 1,000 workers between 1998 and 2007, while France lost 93 days and Denmark lost 157 days, according to a recent study by the Hans Böckler Foundation, the research arm of the German Confederation of Trade Unions.

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But economic changes have strained the German model; membership and collective bargaining have declined. Since 1991 the German Confederation of Trade Unions, the umbrella group of Germany’s eight main unions, has lost almost half its members. Lower-paid workers arriving in Germany from new EU member states and those working in the booming high-tech industry don’t consider union representation as important, while highly skilled workers feel underserved by big unions.

Meanwhile, employers facing economic pressure have been asking to opt out of union contracts. Some employers are avoiding unions altogether, says Heiner Dribbusch of the Hans Böckler Foundation.

A splintering of consensus

In the past couple of decades, industry-wide unions have splintered into smaller ones, often made up of more highly qualified employees. They say they have been neglected by the bigger unions.  

“You now have certain groups in a strong negotiating position breaking off and demanding their own, much better deals,” says Lowell Turner, chairman of the international and comparative labor department at Cornell University. “That’s a threat for the German model of industrial relation and social partnership.”

Airline pilots were among the first to do so, breaking ranks with the white-collar employees' union and striking to obtain their own deal. Six years later, a union representing doctors abandoned an agreement with the service sector union, which represents 1,000 professions, in order to obtain a better deal than the one they thought the mega union could offer them.

Then, in 2007, an old, small, previously insignificant union representing Germany’s train drivers halted train traffic across the country to demand a better deal for their drivers than the one secured by the railroads’ major union. It was the biggest strike the country had seen since 1945.

“Unions are becoming more self-secure; they’re increasingly using the threat potential,” says Gerd Held of Berlin’s Technical University.

Concerned about smaller unions paralyzing essential economic activities, some political and business leaders say lawmakers should start regulating strikes.

“When 200 people manage to close down one of the biggest airports in Europe, it is an abuse of power,” says Prof. Held, referring to the Frankfurt Airport strike.

Some union experts say that a pay hike for the GdF union’s 200 workers would be unfair for the other 20,000 airport ground employees. Lufthansa has threatened to sue the small GdF union for millions of euros in lost revenue. GdF officials replied that doing so would be an attack on a “union’s right to strike.”

But even as Germany’s organized labor tradition is increasingly challenged, some aspects of Germany’s culture of consensus are spilling across the border. In France, taking to the streets has been a government-accepted part of culture since the French Revolution, but that government acceptance is now eroding.

When French pilots went on strike last month, forcing Air France to cancel 20 percent of its flights, they did so in protest of government plans to make strikers give at least two days notice before going on strike – a sign that France, too, is seeking limits on its unions.

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