When the longtime Verdi boss Frank Bsirske resigned, he gave the trade unionists a warning. You would have to “organize, organize, organize,” said Bsirske, “approach people, talk to them and convince them.” The recruiting of members is the most important task of the trade unions. What Bsirske didn’t know back then, in the spring of 2019: Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, it’s been such a thing to approach each other.
The big unions are all losing members. The chemical union IG BCE, number three in Germany, had 25,000 members last year, and IG Metall, the largest union, had 45,000 members. Now Verdi, number two, has also announced figures. Its membership also fell by 45,000, slipping below 1.9 million for the first time in Verdi’s history. Altogether, that’s 115,000 people that the unions can no longer count on when they call for industrial action and rallies.
Short-time work, contact restrictions and home office made it more difficult for shop stewards to approach employees
“It’s a painful loss,” said Verdi boss and Bsirske successor Frank Werneke to journalists on Monday evening, and he said it for good reason. Members are vital to unions, and not just because they pay dues. It is they who give the officials bargaining power when they wrestle with the employers for higher salaries for educators, garbage collectors or shop assistants. Without the threat of paralyzing daycare centers, companies and administrations with strikes if necessary, they could give up immediately. Two examples show how closely the degree of union organization and working conditions are related: In the metal industry (degree of organisation: very high) there is a 35-hour week in many federal states and often Annual salaries from 45,000 euros upwards. In geriatric care (degree of organisation: negligible), the specialists are chronically overworked and earn on average a good 7000 euros less.
Union leaders like Werneke and his counterpart from IG Metall, Jörg Hofmann, justify the loss of members with the corona pandemic. Short-time work, contact restrictions and home office made it more difficult for shop stewards to approach employees. “For example, we had no access to nursing schools – at least in attendance. There alone we manage several thousand admissions a year in normal years,” said Werneke. Some sectors, such as banks and insurance companies, work almost continuously from home. Others have been badly hit by the pandemic, such as air travel, where 30 percent of jobs have been lost – and those who lose their jobs usually also leave the union.
The trade unions have not only been losing inflow since the pandemic, but for 30 years
So Corona is actually a threat to the unions, and yet those responsible are making it too easy for themselves with their analysis. The trade unions have not only been losing inflow since the pandemic, but for 30 years. Individuals – sometimes Verdi, sometimes the police union GdP, sometimes the metalheads – also had passable years in between. Over the decades, however, the curve has clearly pointed downwards: between 1991 and 2020, the number of members in the eight DGB trade unions not only decreased slightly; it has halved, from 11.8 to 5.9 million people.
There are mutliple reasons for this. Trade unions are traditionally strong in large industrial companies, where it is good manners to organize; the trainees are easily persuaded there. But there are fewer and fewer of those trainees in the past year their total number in Germany fell below half a million for the first time. Instead, the boys go to university much more often than they used to, or they work in the service sector, where conditions are often less secure and the companies smaller. It is not uncommon for there to be no works council that could address and recruit people. “It’s more difficult for us to get there,” said DGB boss Reiner Hoffmann recently. He also criticized the often complicated language of the unions and called for them to become more feminine and younger on the outside. Against this background, Hoffmann’s successor Yasmin Fahimi, who will take over as head of the DGB in May, may be a step in the right direction: she is 54, twelve years younger than Hoffmann.
“Overall, however, the working culture is still strongly male-dominated.”
When it comes to language and work culture, it should be about more than just the first row of officials. This is the conclusion reached by political scientist Wolfgang Schroeder, who investigated why fewer women than men join trade unions, even though more and more women are working. “In order to attract members, works councils are crucial,” says Schroeder. The participation of women there has increased somewhat. “Overall, however, the work culture is still strongly male-dominated. Most of the time, the chairman of the works council is also a man. That puts many women off.”
Schroeder also believes unions need to do more for their members. Collective bargaining generally benefits all workers in a facility or industry, whether or not they are union members. There are a few special benefits for members, such as legal protection and a member’s newspaper – which sometimes looks a bit outdated. “There’s still room for improvement,” says Schroeder. He reminds that many employees will need further training in the coming years because their jobs will disappear, because of digitization and because of the switch to climate-neutral business practices. “Trade unions could position themselves as the ones who help their members with these upheavals, advise them and provide them with good training opportunities,” says Schroeder. The unions have a lot to do to ensure that the curve points upwards again at some point.