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Trade Unions

Only around a sixth of employees in Germany are union members, although the decline in union density has slowed in recent years. The vast majority of union members are in the main union confederation, the DGB, but within it individual unions, like IG Metall and Ver.di, have considerable autonomy and influence.    

Figures from the unions indicate that there are some 7.7 million trade union members in Germany. There are no official estimates of union density, but with almost 40 million employees in Germany in 2017, this implies a density figure of 19.3%.[1] However, the union figures include a substantial number of retired trade union members, estimated at 21.6% of total membership in the largest confederation, the DGB, in 2009.[2] Applying this proportion to total union membership produces a density figure based on employed union members of 15.1%. However, this may be an underestimate, and the OECD figure for union density is 17.0% in 2016.[3]


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 eight unions affiliated to it have 5,974,950 members (2018).[4]


DGB unions face significant competition from non-DGB unions in the public sector and former public sectors, where another confederation, the dbb, has 1,317,729 members (2018).[5] There is also a smaller Christian confederation, the CGB, which states it has 280,000 members.[6]


As well as the union confederations, there are autonomous unions for specific occupations, of which the most important are those for hospital doctors (Marburger Bund), flight attendants (UFO), airline pilots (Cockpit), and air traffic controllers (GdF). Some have significant membership. The Marburger Bund states that it has “more than 120,000 members”,[7] UFO is estimated to have around 15,000,[8]  Cockpit 9,600[9]  and the GdF 4,500. (The locomotive drivers’ union GDL, which is often included with these unions, is in fact an affiliate of the dbb.)


Historically DGB unions were 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, from the start of the 1990s there were a number of major mergers, which fundamentally changed the picture.


There are now two very large unions, IG Metall and Ver.di, of similar size, and all the other unions, with the exception of the chemical and energy union, IG BCE, are much smaller.


IG Metall is the largest, with 2,270,595 members (end 2018).[10] 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 1,969,043 members (end 2018). Ver.di seeks to organise service workers in both the private and public sector.

The third largest, with 632,389 members (end 2018), is IGBCE, which covers chemical and energy workers, whose unions merged, together with a small union for leatherworking, in 1997.


The five other DGB affiliates are all much smaller. They are the education and science union GEW (279,389 members), the construction and agriculture union IG BAU (247,181 members), the food and hospitality union NGG (198,026 members), the police union GdP (190,931 members) and transport and rail workers’ union EVG (187,396 members)


These individual unions, particularly the larger ones, 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 also shifted the balance of power towards the individual unions, as the three largest account for 82% 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 in prisons. The four largest unions in the dbb are the teachers’ union VBE, with 164,000 members,[11] another teachers’ union DPhV, for some secondary school and university staff, which has 90,000 members,[12]  komba, a union for administrative staff in local government, also with around 90,000 members[13] and the DSTG, which represents tax officials and has around 70,000 members.[14]


More than two-thirds (70%) 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.[15] But it also organises workers with normal employee rights. One of the most industrially powerful of the dbb unions is the union for locomotive drivers, the GDL, which has been involved in several industrial disputes. At the end of 2010, the other dbb affiliate in the railway industry, the GDBA, merged with a DGB affiliate, Transet, to form the EVG, which became an affiliate of the DGB. This was the first time such a cross-confederation merger had occurred.


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.[16] 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 sometimes seen as more conservative than the DGB, although, it represents a range of views and includes senior SPD figures in its leadership.[17]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 in 1990. The DGB has been most severely affected losing half 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 3.5% between 2010, when it was 6,193,252, and 2018, when it was 5,974,950. Three unions slightly over the same period, including the largest, IG Metall, but this growth was more than offset by falls elsewhere.[18] DGB unions have in recent years expressed growing concern membership losses and have taken a range of initiatives to combat them.[19]   


The dbb’s figures show its membership growing by 3.2% in the period from 2010 to 2018, from 1,276,330 to 1,317,729.[20]  Membership of the Marburger Bund (doctors) has also rise over the last eight years, although precise figures are not published.


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.


Women are also under-represented in unions, accounting for only a third of union members in both the DGB (33.7%) and the dbb (32.4%) in 2018, despite the fact that women make up almost half (47.9%) of those in dependent employment (although only 35.0% of those working full time.[21]

[1] There were 39,983,000 employees in Germany in 2017 according to the Federal Statistics Office.

[2] Gewerkschaften als Interessenvertreter der älteren Generation? by Wolfgang Schroeder and Bettina Munimus in WSI Mitteilungen 3/2011

[3] OECDStat https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=TUD (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[4] DGB-Mitgliederzahlen ab 2010, http://www.dgb.de/uber-uns/dgb-heute/mitgliederzahlen/2010/?tab=tab_0_0#tabnav (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[5] Zahlen Daten Fakten: 2019, dbb beamtenbund und tarifunion, January 2019 (page 66) https://www.dbb.de/fileadmin/pdfs/2019/zdf_2019.pdf  (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[6] http://www.cgb.info/aktuell/aktuelles.html  (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[7] https://www.marburger-bund.de/ (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[8]  See http://www.spiegel.de/plus/ufo-dubiose-finanzen-bei-der-unabhaengigen-flugbegleiter-organisation-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000161216153 (Accessed 06.03.2019

[9] https://www.vcockpit.de/die-vc/verband/allgemein.html (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[10] All figures for individual DGB unions from the DGB – DGB-Mitgliederzahlen ab 2010, http://www.dgb.de/uber-uns/dgb-heute/mitgliederzahlen/2010/?tab=tab_0_0#tabnav (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[11] https://www.vbe.de/der-vbe/ (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[12] https://www.dphv.de/organisation/portrait.html

[13] http://www.komba.de/orgastruktur-komba-bund/ueber-uns-bund.html (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[14] http://www.dstg.de/ueberuns.html (Accessed 06.03.2019)

[15] The fact that Beamte do not have the right to strike was confirmed in a ruling by the German Constitutional Court on 12 June 2018, see Streikverbot für Beamte verfassungsgemäß  https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/2018/bvg18-046.html   

[16] Currently (2019) it is Elke Hannack, who is deputy president of the CDA, the employee wing of the CDU, and who has been deputy president of the DGB since June 2013

[17] For example, Kirsten Lühmann, an SPD member of the Bundestag (GermanParliament) since 2009, is the dbb’s dputy president (2019).

[18] http://www.dgb.de/uber-uns/dgb-heute/mitgliederzahlen

[19] See Gewerkschaften 2030: Rekrutierungsdefizite, Repräsentationslücken und neue Strategien der Mitgliederpolitik, by Anke Hassel and Wolfgang Schroeder, WSI Report, Nr. 44, 2018, 2018

[20] Zahlen Daten Fakten: 2014, dbb beamtenbund und tarifunion, January 2014

[21] Abhängig Erwerbstätige Deutschland, 2017 Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland

L. Fulton (2019) Nationan Industrial Relations, an update. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.