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Trade Unions

Only around a fifth of employees in Germany are union members, and union density has fallen sharply since the early 1990s, in part because of a sharp fall in manufacturing employment in Eastern Germany after unification. The vast majority of union members are in the main union confederation, the DGB, but within it individual unions, like IG Metall and Verdi, have considerable autonomy and influence.

There are some 7.4 million trade union members in Germany. However, this includes a substantial number of retired trade union members, now 20% of the total and growing. As a result, the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density at 18.0% in 2011.1

The main trade union confederation in Germany is the DGB, which aims to recruit all types of worker. It is by far the largest confederation and the unions affiliated to it have 6.15 million members (2012).

DGB unions face significant competition from non-DGB unions in the public sector and former public sectors, where the DBB has 1.26 million members (figures from website 2013), as well as in some specific occupations, such as doctors and airline pilots, where non DGB unions – the Marburger Bund for doctor and Cockpit for airline pilots, for example – have substantial membership. There is also a smaller Christian confederation, the CGB, with more than 280,000 members (2011).

Traditionally DGB unions have been organised primarily on an industrial basis, with unions for metal workers, chemical workers, employees in the public sector, finance and retail and so on. The structure set up when the DGB was created in 1949 remained largely unchanged for many years. However, since the start of the 1990s there have been a number of major mergers, which have fundamentally changed the picture.

There are now two unions – IG Metall and Verdi – of similar size. IG Metall is once again the largest, with 2,2,63,700 members (end 2012). Although the vast majority of its members are still in the metalworking sector, it merged with the textile union in 1997 and the wood and plastics union in 1999. It also has members in the information and communications sector.

Verdi was created in 2001 from a merger of five unions, covering transport and a range of public services, retail and finance, post and telecommunications, the graphical and media sector and a non-manual confederation, the DAG, which had previously been outside the DGB. For a period after the merger it was the largest union in the DGB but, following membership losses, it is now in second place with 2,061,200 members (end 2012). Verdi seeks to organise service workers in both the private and public sector.

The third largest, with 669,000 members, is IGBCE, which covers chemical and energy workers, whose unions merged, together with a small union for leather working, in 1997.

These individual unions are very powerful, and certainly have greater resources than the DGB itself. (The only actual members of the DGB are the eight unions that belong to it.) The mergers have also shifted the balance of power towards the individual unions as the three largest account for 81% of total DGB membership.

The DBB is made up of 42 unions each covering a specific area of the public sector or former public sector, such as teachers in vocational colleges or those working for the German border police. Many of its members are in public services with a special status, who by law cannot take industrial action and whose pay and conditions are not negotiated. But it also organises workers with normal employee rights – around one third of the total – and negotiates for many of them through the DBB Tarifunion. One of the most industrially powerful of the DBB unions is the union for locomotive drivers, the GDL, which was involved in a lengthy industrial dispute in 2007. At the end of 2010, the other DBB affiliate in the railway industry, the GDBA, merged with a DGB affiliate, Transet, the first time such a cross-confederation merger had occurred. The new merged union, called EVG, with 213,600 members has joined the DGB.

Politically the DGB emphasises its formal neutrality and ensures that at least one member of its national executive is a member of the Christian democratic CDU. There are also some CDU members in leading positions in individual unions. However, traditionally, the overall position of the unions and that of most union officials is closer to the social democratic SPD, although there are also some important figures who support the Greens, and middle-ranking union officials played a role in the creation of the left-wing Linkspartei.

Overall union membership has fallen sharply since German unification. The DGB has been most severely affected losing almost half (48%) of its membership since its peak in 1991, despite absorbing the DAG with 460,000 members through the creation of Verdi. (Union membership in the former East Germany, which initially was high, fell very sharply as overall employment there declined.) The last few years have seen something of a stabilisation, with an overall fall in membership of only 0.7% between 2010 and 2012 and four unions growing slightly, including the largest, IG Metall. Trade union membership is strongest among manual workers in manufacturing and in the public services, but much weaker among workers in the private services sector.

L. Fulton (2013) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.