labor law

Squeezing Smaller Unions

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s collective bargaining law was drafted in order that labor disturbances which have plagued industry since 2010 can be avoided.

  • Facts


    • The German Federal Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that the collective bargaining law passed two years ago is compliant with the country’s constitution.
    • The court called on lawmakers to bolster the rights of smaller trade unions by the end of 2018.
    • According to statistics published by the OECD, Germany’s trade union density, meaning the percentage of union members relative to all employees in the country, stood at 18.1 percent in 2013, more than 7 percent less than in 1999.
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Members of German Train Drivers’ Union GDL stage a rally of protest in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz
"We're on strike" says the banner belonging to the GDL rail drivers' union. Source: Reuters

Germany has had its own summers of hell for train travel, thanks to strikes held by the competing labor unions within the country’s rail provider that left gaggles of travelers stranded for hours at a go.

So Tuesday’s ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court was a relief for some, as it confirmed an earlier law to rein in the power of smaller trade unions.

Several trade unions can represent different groups of workers in a single company in Germany. At railway firm Deutsche Bahn, there is one union for train drivers and another for ticket checkers and catering staff, for example. At Lufthansa, Germany’s flagship airline, one labor union represents cockpit staff while another covers crew.

But a law was introduced in 2015 to smooth over disputes such as the clash between competing trade unions at railway operator Deutsche Bahn which threatened to paralyze the country in 2014-2015. Then there was the drawn-out strike by pilots’ union Cockpit the past three years, which all but brought Lufthansa’s operations to a standstill, underlining the need for a reform of collective bargaining.

Tuesday’s ruling confirmed that when a firm has competing collective wage agreements, only that between the trade union with the largest membership and employer applies. For example, it would rule for the larger union if competing unions seek different wage agreements, such as at Deutsche Bahn, when the train drivers’ union (GDL) and the train and transport union (EVG) both fought to represent the transporter’s employees.

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