Alex Domanski/REUTERS
Members of the public service sector union Verdi attend a demonstration during a warning strike in Frankfurt, Germany, March 5.

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.  

Stranded passengers dozing on their suitcases and grumbling over cancelled flights because of strikes is a scene one might expect in France or Greece, but not in Germany, where good labor relations have been fundamental to its economic success.

Yet that has been the scene at Frankfurt’s airport, Europe’s third-largest, where 190 workers responsible for guiding airplanes to their parking spots went on strike on and off for three weeks last month, forcing the airport to cancel 1,600 flights.

When they asked traffic controllers to join their strike for six hours, a move that would have brought the airport to a halt, airport operator Fraport and flagship airline Lufthansa requested a court injunction against the strike, which was organized by the small aviation union GdF. A day later, a judge ordered the strikers back to work.

“A solidarity strike is irresponsible, inappropriate, and disproportionate,” said officials of the German Safety Agency.

GdF’s strike, which had far-reaching effects despite the small number of participants, highlights a shift in Germany’s organized labor system: the rise of smaller, bolder unions who buck the tradition of consensus-building between industry-wide unions and employers.

After decades of allowing unions to essentially govern themselves through special labor courts, more and more German politicians are calling on the government to rein in these rebellious unions.

“It is high time for legislators to take action and say when a strike is legal and when it is not,” says Lena Rudkowski, a European labor law specialist at Berlin’s Free University, saying that strikes should not jeopardize “essential services.” “We’re proud of having economic stability and some kind of social peace, and we want to preserve what we’ve gained over the past 50 years.”

A young democracy made unions a tool of stability

In the post-World War I Weimar Republic, competition among myriad small, politically oriented unions helped foster the social unrest that gave rise to the Third Reich. After the war, West Germany’s employers, politicians, and trade unionists worked to make unions a tool of stability for the young democracy.

Gradually a union infrastructure developed in which industry-wide unions and employer associations would act as partners and negotiate on behalf of all employees, regardless of their level. Within firms, work councils would represent workers and defend their rights. The system gave West Germans working conditions that most Europeans could only envy, including high wages, shorter workweeks, and little labor unrest.

Strikes are a common form of protest against unpopular policies throughout Europe, but in Germany strikes can only be staged against issues of pay and working conditions. When France raised the minimum legal pension age from 60 to 62 in 2010, the weeks of nationwide strikes threatened the center-right government. When the German parliament raised the retirement age from 65 to 67 in 2007, there were no strikes.

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.

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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