German unions confront meltdown

Members are deserting, the Chancellor is scornful. Organised labour is facing redundancy, Imre Karacs reports from Dusseldorf
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The Independent Online
Cinema audiences across Germany are tapping their feet in the intervals to the sound of syndicalist rap. IG-Metall, the country's largest trade union, is selling itself to a new kind of member, much like the fresh faces with matching haircuts - more Manhattan than Mannheim - who blurt out the slogans in its commercial.

But the underlying message that unions are cool and dynamic is likely to ring as hollow to the audience as the average soap powder advert. Out in the real Germany, union members are disappearing even faster than jobs, and the power of a movement that was once able to bring factory bosses to their knees is ebbing away.

IG-Metall lost 4 per cent of its members last year; 4.8 per cent in 1994, and about the same every year back until 1991, when its ranks were swollen by the soon-to-be-unemployed proletariat of the former East Germany. Others are faring no better. Of the 16 organisations belonging to the DGB, the German Trade Union Federation, only the policemen's union has not shrunk in the Nineties. There are 34.4 million Germans in employment, but fewer than 10 million belong to a DGB-affiliated organisation.

Worse still, their influence with government is waning, and at far faster a pace than their declining numbers would suggest. Last Tuesday's ill- tempered meeting between employers, unions and Chancellor Helmut Kohl may turn out to be the watershed in Germany's labour relations. Hurt by the way Mr Kohl swept aside their objections to the most sustained attack on the welfare state and workers' rights since the war, the unions have gone into a sulk.

"Helmut Kohl has apparently lost his social sensitivity," complained Dieter Schulte, the DGB's chairman, as he stumbled out of the Chancellor's office in a state of bewilderment. He had just been informed that the government was cutting sick pay and unemployment benefit, raising the retirement age and abolishing job security at small enterprises in an effort to boost Germany's competitiveness.

"The unions are ready to participate in the reform of the social security system. But we also need social justice," Mr Schulte added, to no avail. The government is determined to push through a series of measures in the 18 months between now and the next elections that will transform the economic landscape. An overhaul of the tax system, coupled with savage cuts in welfare payments, aims to reduce the soaring cost of labour and the ballooning government deficit.

The unions agree with Mr Kohl's aims, and do not even dispute the need for radical surgery on the ailing welfare state, but had hoped to hold Mr Kohl's hand as he wielded the scalpel. Instead, the Chancellor is swinging the axe with barely disguised delight, oblivious to the agonised screams of the patient and the observers in attendance.

The snub is all the more humiliating because, in seeking to work together with the government and employers, organised labour had made fundamental concessions. At the end of last year, as unemployment was beginning to scale Weimarian heights, IG-Metall proposed an "Alliance for Jobs" that for the first time recognised the link between joblessness and the enormity of German wage packets. The union's leader, Klaus Zwickel, offered to sacrifice his members' future pay rises in exchange for an employers' pledge to create 100,000 new jobs in the engineering industry. The DGB turned "Alliance for Jobs" into a national cause, holding a series of discussions with Mr Kohl and the employers.

But the talks have come to nothing, and now the post-war political consensus is fracturing. The unions, trying very hard to be unreasonable for the first time in living memory, are threatening labour unrest. Bank employees fighting for a pay rise are expected to be balloted for a strike shortly. The DGB is planning to hold mass demonstrations on May Day, and IG-Metall will be flexing its muscle in the summer. Germans can brace themselves for a barrage of rap urging them to join the struggle against the wicked government.

Their campaign is unlikely, however, to lead to the kind of turmoil experienced by France at the end of last year or Britain in the early Eighties. For one thing, labour relations in Germany are codified to the last paragraph of the law. The protagonists must first hold endless negotiations, subject themselves to mediation and then sue each other to exhaustion in a labour court before a strike can even be contemplated. Under German law, both Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill would have probably ended up in jail.

A general strike is prohibited by the DGB's own constitution, except when the country's "democratic order" is under threat. The national leadership negotiates pay rises with employers in the sector, which are then binding. This emasculates bolshie shop stewards on the factory floor and virtually rules out sporadic strikes, but it also guarantees spectacular disruption when all attempts to avert a crisis fail.

Such occurrences are rare, however, because of Germany's unique "second pillar": the works councils, elected by employees of any enterprise with more than 50 workers. Legalised initially by Bismarck in an attempt to outflank the unions, the works councils are obliged to seek a consensus with management. They are not allowed to call a strike but have a say in hirings and dismissals and must be consulted about changes in work conditions. Dual membership in the work councils and the unions is commonplace. Indeed, one of the unions' most important tasks is to coach workers' representatives in labour law.

Entrenched rights guarantee that, whatever this or successive conservative governments may be plotting, Germany is a long way from becoming an American- style capitalist paradise. McDonald's discovered this when it landed in a German labour court a few years ago, and IBM had to abandon its union- free dogma because it jarred with the constitution. Conversely, paternalistic German companies like BMW and Mercedes-Benz were quick to clamp down on organised labour in their new American plants.

With the kind of protection they enjoy, backed up by a plethora of labour laws, many German workers are concluding that the 1 per cent of wages they pay in union subs is a redundant investment. Many more are set to join the stampede as traditional industries employing thousands of workers under one roof gradually give way to the smaller-scale enterprises of the future. The unions are in danger of becoming irrelevant.

In the ponderous world of the DGB, a gleaming glass structure on the outskirts of opulent Dusseldorf, the alarm signals have at last penetrated the collective consciousness. "Every year, there are fewer workers and more white collar employees," says Jurgen Hecker, the DGB official responsible for public sector workers. "We must go on the offensive to bring these people to the unions. But we can't do that with 10, 20, or 30-year-old programmes. The unions must change."

Change they will, starting with the relaunch scheduled for the DGB's congress in November. The new political programme now being drafted will promise greater flexibility in the decision-making process, more awareness of the issues concerning the young and middle class, and a long-term strategy for coping with the social upheavals that are marginalising the movement in other post-industrial democracies.

The public are in for more rap, and just about any other advertising gimmick the DGB can dream up. "The Brothers" are acutely aware that this is their last chance to arrest the movement's inexorable decline, and prevent Bismarck's Utopia of a union-free Germany coming true a century after his death.