Election campaign

Labor minister attacks Merkel on social justice

Agentur fuer Arbeit
Another hard day's wait at the job center. Source: dpa

When Labor Minister Andrea Nahles first saw the 2017 election campaign slogan of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrat Union, she was so shocked that she nearly lost control of the car she was driving.

“I almost caused an accident when I first saw the poster, ‘Good Work, Good Wages’,” said Ms. Nahles, whose Social Democrat Party (SPD) is currently in a grand coalition with the conservative CDU, despite their rivalry. “I hadn’t noticed them pushing this agenda in the last four years.”

Angela Merkel’s party had commandeered the message that has traditionally belonged to her left-leaning party, she told Handelsblatt.

But Ms. Nahles counters that it’s the SPD that has the credibility in this area. Since the last elections in 2013, after which the grand coalition was formed, the party has pushed through two major labor-related policies: a blanket minimum wage and a lowering of the retirement age to 63.

“Those people who have not yet been able to profit from our favorable labor market situation should be publicly employed.”

Andrea Nahles, Labor minister

Yet despite these legislative victories, Ms. Nahles’ party is still trailing its conservative rivals in the polls by at least 10 points. With campaigning now well underway ahead of September’s vote, the SPD is pulling out all the stops to burnish its credentials as the workers’ party. Its plan includes defending retirement benefits, higher wages for caregivers and subsidized training programs to prepare Germany’s labor force for the digital era, including personal career development funds.

“We’ve achieved a lot in the area of social justice in the last few years, but we still have much left to do,” Ms. Nahles said. “Full employment won’t fall from the sky. It can only be accomplished through hard work.”

A key policy is a collective bargaining agreement for social workers, including professional caregivers, in order to prevent a “race to the bottom” on wages. A lack of well-paid caregivers is a highly politicized problem in Germany, which has an aging population and one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

Ms. Nahles also wants to prevent women from falling into what she called a “part-time trap,” in which female employees trapped in low-wage jobs are also forced to contend with meager pensions.

“The relevant legislation that would enable women to return to work in a full-time capacity is completed, but the CDU has blocked it,” Ms. Nahles said.

She also has a plan for Germany’s roughly 200,000 long-term unemployed. “Those people who have not yet been able to profit from our favorable labor market situation should be publicly employed,” Ms. Nahles said. This would likely involve the government finding low-skilled jobs for them, she said.

Nahles stellt Agenda-Reformplan vor
Andrea Nahles could soon be looking for a new job. Source: dpa

And how is the SPD going to pay for all these plans? “The Federal Statistical Office reported that in 2016, €109 billion ($128.5 billion) was handed down in the form of inheritance,” she said. “Taxing part of this would be a step toward more justice in this country.”

The German welfare state costs taxpayers €918 billion to maintain and is growing faster than the economy. When asked whether it could withstand the additional burden, Ms. Nahles was unequivocal.

“I believe that we have the welfare state that we can very well afford in this country, fortunately,” she said. Besides, the labor minister added, “it will be even more expensive if we do nothing.”

As for defeating one of the most popular chancellors in post-war German history, Ms. Nahles advised her party to do something that Ms. Merkel, a dispassionate pragmatist, is unlikely to do.

“We have to get more emotional, fight and force Ms. Merkel to speak her mind,” she said.


Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt’s bureau chief in Berlin. Frank Specht focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. Peter Thelen writes about social security systems, the job market and labor topics. To contact the authors: sigmund@handelsblatt.com, specht@handelsblatt.com, thelen@handelsblatt.com

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