Small German Unions Upstage Larger Peers

The threatened strike marks a departure from the German system of industry-wide unions, which negotiate for all employees within an industry regardless of their occupation.

The train drivers union, GDL, threatening to bring German railways to a halt was barely known a few months ago, and is one of several undermining the power of established trade unions. On Oct. 1, the GDL union called for a strike after talks broke down with the national railway Deutsche Bahn on a specific contract for train drivers. Two unions that represent other categories of rail workers had already agreed on the terms of a new contract. The "dwarf" or "mini-unions," as they are called in the German press, defend specific professions and are becoming more successful in doing so.

Besides the GDL, the Cockpit union represents airline pilots, GdF air traffic controllers and the Marburger Bund doctors, after they all split off from Verdi, which covers the services sector as a whole.

Smaller unions are drawing workers away from Verdi and IG Metall, in the industrial sector, with the DGB umbrella labor confederation having lost 40% of its membership in 14 years, according to news magazine Der Spiegel. Some analysts say the trend towards smaller unions could make for a tougher negotiating approach compared with the traditional way when the bigger groups' talked to employers by branch.

"The emergence of 'corporatist' trade unions is the worst thing that could have happened to the labor market," said Hans-Werner Sinn, director of the economic research institute Ifo. "The threatened strike ... marks a departure from the German system of industry-wide unions, which negotiate for all employees within an industry regardless of their occupation. The alternative is unions for individual trades within an industry, which usually are aggressive negotiators and tend to demand far more than is economically feasible."

Other analysts downplayed the threat, suggesting the new unions would have only limited influence and then only in specific cases. "The number of cases where small unions have gained influence is limited," said Reinhard Bispinck of the Hans-Boeckler Stiftung institute which is close to the unions. "They are successful only when they represent groups with a strategic position within a company and a strong identity, like airline pilots or train drivers."

Bispinck said that IG Metall and Verdi might also be able to stem their loss of influence because "we are coming out of a morose period of high unemployment, when unions had to buckle under to save jobs."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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