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BEERG Newsletter - Unions: German problem, French growth

Gerlind Wisskirchen, [email protected] draws our attention to the following interesting statistics about unions in Germany.

As the number of strikes in recent weeks and the mobilization campaigns on Labor Day have shown, German unions are trying hard to recruit members and increase their presence in companies. However, it is no secret that unions are facing challenges, and a recent paper by the German Economic Institute (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft) highlights their structural deficits and uncertain future. The main findings:

The biggest problem unions are facing: the enormous decline in membership. In 2021, only one in six employees was a member of a trade union, and from 1980 to 2018, the proportion of unionized employees halved from 32.5 % to 16.7 %. On top of the declining rates, unions have a problem with #recruiting young people. Only 15.4 % of employees under the age of 30 are also union members. At the same time, 21 % are 50 years old or older, so it is clearly more difficult to convince younger people to become members.

The same can be said for women, who are the most underrepresented group in Germany making up approx. 20.9 % of total employees, but only 13.9 % of female employees are union members. Just under 39 % of civil servants are unionized - more than in any other service sector. Since 2018, their proportion has increased significantly. Union representation is particularly high here because the group is relatively homogeneous compared to others, and therefore easier to mobilize.

Employees with vocational #training are comparatively well represented with a proportion of 20 %, and low-skilled workers make up around 13 %. Academics make up almost half of the labor market and the trend is rising, but the level of union membership remains unchanged at 15.4 %.

However, unions in Germany are not as dependent on membership as they are in the USA, as German lawmakers are continuously introducing more measures to incentivize more collective bargaining agreements, such as the latest draft of the Working Hours Act, which allows the flexible arrangement of working hours only via CBAs. 

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Meanwhile, according to Reuters  while France's unions may have failed to block the government’s decision to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, still one of the lowest in Europe, they appear to be pulling in new members as a result of their opposition.

CGT leadership member Thomas Vacheron said the union had seen more than 30,000 new workers join since January. Meanwhile, the moderate CFDT, which with more than 600,000 members vies with the CGT for the title of France's biggest union, has seen 32,000 new joiners this year, up 40% from the same period last year, a CFDT official said.

Vacheron said that more than 30% of the CGT's recent joiners were under the age of 35 while 70% were coming from the private sector, which traditionally is dominated by the CFDT. "Since the retirement reform is contested by the young and old, public and private sector workers, they see a utility in belonging to unions, unions are attractive," Vacheron said.

Labour relations consultant Stephanie Matteudi-Lecocq told Reuters that the momentum coming from pension reform pushback could ultimately put unions back on more solid footing in companies. "Negotiations could become more interesting if workers get more involved. Unions have a card to play at the company level," she said. Matteudi-Lecocq said the challenge now would be to keep making themselves relevant in a post-COVID world where home-working and frequent changing of jobs have become the norm. Otherwise, the newcomers could leave as easily as they joined.

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Authors: Dr. Gerlind Wisskirchen, Tom Hayes

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