News | Labour / Unions - Union Struggles Germany’s Trade Unions are Racking Up Wins

The most recent collective bargaining rounds have seen organized labour go on the offensive



Heinz Bierbaum,

Health care workers in Hamburg demonstrate on the second day of their warning strike, 15 March 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Hanno Bode

This year’s collective bargaining rounds in Germany have been driven by a breadth of mobilization unseen for quite some time. On certain days, the frequent warning strikes and demonstrations have brought public life to a standstill. We need only think of Monday, 27 March, when traffic across the country was completely immobilized.

Heinz Bierbaum is the Chair of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Executive Board.

Translated by Sam Langer and Eve Richens for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The current wage disputes are mainly taking place in the civil service, the postal service, and the railways. Industrial sectors like the metal industry and the chemicals industry negotiated their collective agreements towards the end of last year. The labour conflict in the postal service has been particularly notable — when brought to a vote, the overwhelming majority of workers voiced their support for an indefinite strike.

The background to this extraordinary mobilization is the unusually high inflation rate in Europe and Germany — close to 10 percent, with energy and food prices in particular on the rise. This has led to strong protests and resistance actions across Europe, especially in the UK, where the motto was “Enough is Enough”. Similar protests and action coalitions also emerged in Germany and influenced the dynamic of collective bargaining. The unions’ demands in the civil service, the postal service, and the railways — for wage increases of 10.5, 15, and 12 percent, combined with one-off or minimum payments — were quite high for German standards.

So far, the collective bargaining rounds have achieved considerable results. The mining, chemical, and energy workers’ union IG BCE kicked things off last October, with a wage increase of 6.5 percent and a compensation payment of 3,000 euro with a two-year term. The agreement reached by the metalworkers’ union IG Metall in November was somewhat higher, with an 8.5-percent wage increase over two years and a 3,000-euro inflation compensation payment.

Nevertheless, the agreement was also the subject of significant criticism. The mobilization was said to have been inadequate, despite massive warning strikes, with the result that a complete offsetting of inflation was not achieved. On the other hand, the agreement did meet with broad support among the workforce. We should also bear in mind the eminently difficult situation in the metal industry, due not only to the economic slowdown but also and especially to far-reaching processes of transformation in the sector.

The agreement reached in the postal service, meanwhile, is truly remarkable. Demanding 15 percent, the union achieved a pay rise of 340 euro — an 11-percent wage increase on average, and even significantly higher for those in the lowest wage groups — in addition to substantial one-off payments. Obviously, the successful strike vote and the determination to strike were enough to reach this agreement. The demand and the agreement can also be explained by Deutsche Post’s huge profits thanks to enormous order volumes resulting from the pandemic.

Especially in times of profound social and economic transformation, the connection between collective bargaining policy and social policy more broadly is of vital importance.

The result of collective bargaining in the civil service is also notable, with a wage increase of 5.5 percent and a minimum increase of 340 euro, especially beneficial for those in the lowest wage categories, along with an adjustment payment of 3,000 euro.

The collective bargaining round itself went much further than wage negotiations alone. For example, there was cooperation between the services sector union Ver.di and the Fridays for Future movement, which actively participated in demonstrations and warning strikes. Their common goal is a fundamentally different mobility policy, with expansion and improvement of public transport.

The action was criticized as an illegal political strike by elements among the employers’ organizations. Their critique did not gain traction, however, and was inconsequential. It is evident, in any case, that the wage dispute took on a markedly political dimension.

Likewise of note is the fact that Ver.di and the railways union EVG cooperated on the collective bargaining round. Their convergence may lead to further and more intensive cooperation between trade unions in the future. The active role played by the state, and thus the political sphere, is also interesting: the one-time payments were not taxed, i.e. they are paid out net. That is quite remarkable in light of the autonomy of collective bargaining otherwise held in such high esteem by trade unions, and raises questions for the future.

In this context, the initiative by IG Metall to introduce a four-day week with full wage adjustment in the steel industry represents a qualitative milestone in collective bargaining policy. The new initiative ties in with the 2018 negotiations, when working hours likewise played a role, with a vote being cast to decide between higher wages and more free time. Reductions in working hours can have widely differing objectives and meanings depending on the social context in which they are applied. Employers can also call for them in the event of economic problems, albeit without full wage adjustment.

From the trade unionist and politically progressive perspective, however, reductions should be used for going on the offensive — not only to secure employment but also to improve working and living conditions. This also means accepting no curtailment of remuneration.

At the latest since the struggle over the 35-hour week, we have known that it is not enough to simply demand a shorter working week, but that doing so requires a much broader social mobilization. The idea of a four-day week has been put forward again and again from various quarters. The present initiative by IG Metall ought to be used to help turn the matter into a society-wide issue. In particular, the question of working hours should be linked with the ongoing transformation processes in industry.

Collective bargaining rounds always have a more or less pronounced political dimension. They ought therefore to be connected with the political mandate of the unions, as has indeed been demonstrated in this year’s bargaining round, by linking the question of wage increases with questions of mobility and public infrastructure.

Especially in times of profound social and economic transformation, the connection between collective bargaining policy and social policy more broadly is of vital importance. The trade unions’ goals, such as secure employment and decent working and living conditions, depend to a large extent on decisions made at the political level.