Frank Bsirske

The CEO of Labor Inc.

bsirske frank verdi chief potsdam 28 march state government employees source DPA
Verdi chief Frank Bsirske before he gets what he wants. Here in March in Potsdam during negotiations on behalf of 800,000 German state government employees.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Frank Bsirske, the head of Verdi, could singlehandedly upend Germany’s transport and retail sectors by continuing an aggressive strike campaign against Lufthansa, Deutsche Bahn and Amazon.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Frank Bsirske will run for a fourth term as head of Germany’s service workers union Verdi in September.
    • The son of a VW production worker and nurse, Mr. Bsirske has been active in union organizing since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
    • After leading strikes at Deutsche Bahn and Lufthansa, Mr. Bsirske is setting his sight on retailers.
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    Audio

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Barely a day goes by without some strike in one of the 1,000 sectors represented by services union Verdi, which counts more than 2 million members in Germany.

Its chairman, Frank Bsirske, was instrumental in creating Verdi in 2001 through the merger of five unions and has led the labor behemoth ever since.

Most recently, Mr. Bsirske’s battalions have brought kindergartens and branches of retail bank Postbank to a standstill, and they’ve been blocking parcel deliveries by online retailer Amazon and mail service by the government’s postal service, Deutsche Post.

Some say his confrontational approach is designed to drum up support for his re-election as union boss in September.

German law requires large companies to appoint at least half of their policy making panels from the ranks of workers.

So far, no one has come forward to challenge the 63-year-old for what would be his fourth term. The last vote in 2011 handed him a record result of 94.7 percent, results comparable only to Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un.

The local governments with whom Verdi is arguing over pay for kindergarten staff complain that he treats pay negotiations as his own personal stage.

The head of the major employer group, the Federation of German Industries, Ulrich Grillo, has said that Verdi is less willing to compromise than other unions. Mr. Grillo is “concerned that the readiness to strike is mounting,” an understatement in a country wracked by year-long rail and airline work stoppages.

Mr. Bsirske, the son of a Volkswagen production line worker and a nurse, studied politics at Berlin’s Free University and has been a union official since 1989. He’s a member of the opposition Greens party and campaigned successfully to introduce a legal minimum wage, which went into effect on January 1.

His union offered Greece’s leftist Syriza party a campaign stage ahead of its election in January and has organized demonstrations against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership free trade proposal between Europe and the United States that critics fear will erode German food, labor and environmental standards.

He’s also a member of the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank, which is pondering a major strategic overhaul. German law requires large companies to appoint at least half of their policy making panels from the ranks of workers.

Mr. Bsirske, said Oliver Greue, the regional head of Verdi for three eastern German states, has a far stronger public presence than other union leaders.

“That also strengthens Verdi’s profile,” he said.

To be sure, Mr. Bsirske’s activist approach has enabled him to halt the decline in Verdi’s membership. Verdi has hemorrhaged almost 800,000 members since it was founded, but the number of employed people joining the union has recently exceeded those leaving.

bsirske frank freiburg march 2014 state public sector workers rally source DPA
The Verdi chief in March 2014 in Freiburg during a rally on behalf of state government workers. Source: DPA

 

Now Mr. Bsirske wants to build membership again by offering better services and benefits and getting Verdi to play a bigger role in everyday workplace issues and and political campaigns.

After more than a decade at the pinnacle of German labor, Mr. Bsirske shows no signs of retiring.

His deputy, Andrea Kocsis, denied speculation that she may challenge him for the leadership post.

In an interview with Handelsblatt, she said: “I do not intend to stand against Frank Bsirske and I expressly welcome that he’s standing again for the the chairmanship.”

His fourth term would end in 2019 when he’ll be 67.

Critics say his support for strike actions, which have plagued Germany over the past year, amounts to little more than self-promotion.

Verdi took legal action to determine whether Germany’s BCE energy and mining union had encroached on its territory.

But Mr. Bsirske has to be more trigger-happy than his industrial peers at IG Metall, the metal workers union, because Verdi, as a service workers union, represents government workers and does not have the ability to exert its will on powerful corporate works councils.

Gruff and effective, Mr. Bsirske traditionally likes to negotiate in person on behalf of regional public employees and may soon take over wage talks for social workers and kindergarten staff.

And with pay talks in Germany’s retail sector entering a crucial round in the last week of April, employers are already bracing for the potential of strikes there too, in a country that is rapidly taking on a fractious form of labor politics more common to France than Germany.

“We’re already used to the strike card being shown at some point,” said Heribert Jöris, chief negotiator for retail industry.

At Amazon, Verdi wants to push through a separate labor contract for German employees. At Lufthansa, the union is negotiating on behalf of ground staff. At Deutsche Post, it’s fighting plans for savings by demanding shorter working hours — at the same pay.

bsirske frank with lufthansa december 2013 source Dominik Butzmann for Handelsblatt
Can we cut to the quick? Frank Bsirske, the chief of Verdi, has been instrumental in the year-long campaign of strikes by pilots and flight attendants at Lufthansa. Source: Dominik Butzmann for Handelsblatt

 

Mr. Bsirske’s political involvement has often stoked controversy.

His own Green Party accused him of “populist propaganda on the backs of workers” when he warned that up to 100,000 jobs were at stake over plans by Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel to impose a climate levy on the country’s coal-fired power stations.

And as soon as the Syriza party came to power in Greece, Mr. Bsirske quickly joined other trade unions in declaring that the political earthquake was an opportunity “to fundamentally review and correct the economic and social policy in the E.U.”

He’s also shown sharp elbows when it comes to other unions. Verdi took legal action to determine whether Germany’s BCE energy and mining union had encroached on its territory. And he stayed out of a cooperation deal agreed between four industrial unions led by IG Metall that aimed to avoid inter-union friction.

He also opposes a plan to require unions to accept the principle of one labor contract per company, which Germany’s DGB trade union federation, the association representing the country’s unions, including Verdi, supports.

His deputy, Ms. Kocsis, said the proof of the pudding is in the numbers.

Asked by Handelsblatt if she was satisfied with Verdi’s membership trend, she said: “The downtrend seems to have been halted. Now the focus is on stabilizing a growth trend in the long term.”

 

Frank Specht is an editor covering labor issues at Handelsblatt in Berlin. Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau chief. To reach the authors: specht@handelsblatt.com and sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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