Germany’s powerful metalworkers’ union, IG Metall, sees itself as a modern labor organization.
While at past trade union congresses delegates were easily recognizable by their heavy rucksacks full of files, at this year’s event everything fit on an app or PC tablet. The world’s largest labor union is also renewing its pursuit of members through the Internet.
And this week, IG Metall broke even more new ground at its congress in Frankfurt where for the first time in its nearly 125-year history, the labor union elected a woman, 47-year-old Christiane Benner, as its deputy chairperson.
But if you look at the union’s contradictory agenda for the next four years, you might wonder if it has truly arrived in the future.
Realistically, complete flexibility with full wages isn't going to happen.
The labor union aims to fight for adequate and solidly financed pensions, confident that its service-industry colleagues from the Verdi trade union will follow. It also counts on continued support from Germany’s governing coalition of conservative and left-leaning parties.
Yet it supports lowering the pension age from 67 to 63, for example. It has castigated pensions at age 67 as “one of the worst decisions in the history of German social policies,” declaring pensions at 63 “a great success for all those involved.”
For a union that claims to be modern, that is difficult to explain. Because while it sends a message of gratitude to older members, who earn enough anyway, it reduces the room for improvements for younger workers, who really do need more help.
IG Metall also must prove how modern it is in its approach to the working time debate. It would like to have a new normal work situation that allows for periods spent raising children, while keeping an eye on the work-life-balance of employees. But part-time or temporary jobs are precarious occupations in the eyes of the trade union. And that stance makes it more difficult to use temporary workers, when perhaps they could fill in for parents on leave.
Realistically, complete flexibility with full wages isn’t going to happen. The price for working-time models that take employees’ wishes into more serious consideration could, for example, lead to abolishing certain night-shift premiums — something the union once fought so hard to attain.
IG Metall can certainly expect difficult debates on this subject. Which is why, in the next round of collective wage agreements due to begin early next year, it will intentionally avoid discussing working time until a later date.
The organization has also tried to present itself as modern in light of the recent VW emissions scandal, which is likely to dampen the mood at its annual congress this year. That’s why it is using the crisis as an opportunity to call for more investment in future technologies, like electric cars.
At the same time though, the trade unions’ wish to organize employees all the way down the supply chain, and have them all included in the metalworkers’ collective wage agreement, is a sure way to make life difficult for the auto industry.
With the support of politicians, IG Metall might even succeed in slowing down outsourcing — for example, of logistics via works contracts — even if that means turning back the clock on division of labor.
But it must realize that the price for this is a further rise in working costs and reduced competitiveness. Surely, it won’t want to have to explain to its members one day why a factory had to be moved abroad.
IG Metall has proved in the past that it can conduct responsible collective wage bargaining and keep the manufacturing location in mind. One example is the flexibility clause for crisis-hit companies in the so-called “Pforzheim Agreement,” a deal between employers and trade unions in 2004 to strengthen Germany as an industrial location.
Jörg Hofmann, who now leads the trade union, was the main negotiating partner for that agreement. So hopefully he will remain prudent in the future, and not promise his 2.3 million members the impossible. Hardly anyone would suggest he lacked this sense of responsibility.
Today, IG Metall is working from a position of strength. The weakness of the euro and cheap oil are boosting the economic climate and employment growth. The trade union has grown five years in succession, also thanks to new marketing concepts for attracting members, financed by hefty membership fees.
It also has better ties to politicians than it has for a long time. Many of labor minister Andrea Nahles’ laws, for instance, read as if they were dictated directly by labor union secretaries.
But success tends to breed arrogance. Today’s IG Metall can only really call itself modern if it manages to maintain some sense of reality despite its newly won power.
In a new working world, it can’t keep pushing old principles.
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