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 6,104,851members (2014)2 .
DGB unions face significant competition from non-DGB unions in the public sector and former public sectors, where another confederation, the dbb, has 1,282,829 members (2014)3 . There is also a smaller Christian confederation, the CGB, which states it has 280,000 members.4
As well as the union confederations, there are autonomous unions for specific occupations, such as hospital doctors (Marburger Bund), airline pilots (Cockpit), flight attendants (Ufo) and air traffic controllers (GdF). Some have significant membership. The Marburger Bund reported it had 114,179 members at the end of 2012.5  Cockpit states on its website that it has some 9,300.6  (The locomotive drivers’ union GDL, which is often included with these unions, is in fact an affiliate of the dbb.)
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 Ver.di – of similar size. IG Metall is once again the largest, with 2,269,281 members (end 2014)7 . 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.
Ver.di 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 2,039,931 members (end 2014). Ver.di seeks to organise service workers in both the private and public sector.
The third largest, with 657,752 members (end 2014), is IGBCE, which covers chemical and energy workers, whose unions merged, together with a small union for leatherworking, 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 43 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. The two largest unions are the teachers’ union VBE and komba, a union for administrative staff in local government.
Most of the members of dbb unions are employees in public services with a special status (Beamte), whose pay and conditions are set by law and not negotiated.8 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 (now integrated into the dbb). 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, which at the end of 2014 had 203,875 members, joined the DGB.
The Christian CGB consists of 14 separate unions of which the most important is the metalworkers’ union CGM. However, the courts have ruled in a series of cases that these unions do not have the capacity (in terms of membership or organisation) to conclude collective agreements (see section on collective bargaining).
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.
The constitution of the dbb also states that it is independent in both party political and confessional terms. It is traditionally seen as more conservative than the DGB, although the current president does not belong to any party and its executive includes SPD members. The CGB in contrast, states that it is guided by Christian social teaching, which it considers can only be achieved through separate union organisation.
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 when it had 11.8 million members. This is despite absorbing a previously separate union grouping for non-manual workers (the DAG with 460,000 members) through the creation of Ver.di in 2001. (Union membership in the former East Germany, which initially was high, fell very sharply as overall employment there declined.) In the last few years membership has stabilised, with an overall fall of only 1.4% between 2010, when it was 6,193,252, and 2014, when it was 6,104,851. Four unions grew slightly over the same period, including the largest, IG Metall.8
The dbb’s figures show its membership growing by 1.7% in the period from 2010 to 2014, from 1,276,330 to 1,282,8299 . Membership of the Marburger Bund (doctors) rose by 16% between 2006 and 2012, from 98,033 to 114,179.10
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. Among DGB unions, 33.1% of union members are women and 66.9% men (figures for end 2014). In the DBB, 31.8% of union members are women and 68.2% are men (2014).
L. Fulton (2015) 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.