At first glance, Volkswagen’s 8,500 employees at its plant in Zwickau, Saxony, have little to complain about. They have secure, long-term jobs and are among the highest-paid workers in that corner of eastern Germany. And the sprawling production site has barely suffered from the diesel scandal that rocked the world’s biggest automaker. Quite the opposite: Prospects look better than ever. Every electric car of the group’s leading VW brand will soon be produced there.
Yet, if the latest election of labor representatives last March is anything to go by, something is off. Some 20 percent of the employees voted for a sympathizer of the Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party also known as AfD. The official went on to join the site’s works council, a powerful body which can advise on reorganizations and needs to approve layoffs. At the last election four years ago, IG Metall, Germany’s largest trade union, won a resounding 100 percent of the vote.
Jens Rothe, the head of VW’s works council in Zwickau, struggles to explain the brooding dissatisfaction. Granted, after the group restructured the factory and a neighboring site in Dresden two years ago, not everything changed for the better, says Mr. Rothe, who was re-elected two months ago. However, “not a single employee lost their jobs or got a pay cut,” he emphasizes.
But the labor unionist believes the millions of euros Volkswagen plans to invest in the GDR-era plant may actually be part of the problem. After all, not every worker is thrilled about e-mobility. This may be another example of what Mr. Rothe calls “global-galactic transformations” – changes that radically affect the workplace and leave employees feeling they have little say in affairs.
Germany’s thriving economy has not prevented the far-right party’s success in recent elections, nor has it halted the ascent of right-wing unionists within companies. VW’s Zwickau plant is hardly the only thriving production site where the populist right capitalizes on fears of technological change, hoping to win over well-paid workers in secure jobs.
A far-right labor organization innocuously named “Zentrum Automobil,” or ZA, made big wins in works councils of more than a dozen factories across the country earlier this year. These range from BMW and Porsche sites in Leipzig to rival carmaker Opel’s main plant near Frankfurt and a factory operated by Stihl, a chainsaw-maker in Baden-Württemberg.
At Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz main plant in Untertürkheim, a suburb of Stuttgart, ZA became the second-largest organization within the newly-elected works council. The right-wingers’ share of the vote – 13 percent – was dwarfed by IG Metall’s impressive 75 percent, but their relatively good result at Daimler’s flagship factory has emboldened them. ZA’s leaders are dreaming of founding a network of nationalist-minded unions across the country.
Change is afoot in Untertürkheim. Thanks to the work council’s tenacious lobbying, the carmaker has agreed to relocate its battery-development unit to the plant. As a result, 300 employees will switch from Accumotive, a subsidiary, to Daimler – and with much higher salaries. “Zentrum came up with no plans for the development of the site,” grumbles Wolfgang Nieke, the head of the works council. What irks him most is ZA’s unproductive opposition to everything, on principle. “They see themselves as advocates of the rank and file, and dismiss everyone else as corrupt.”
15 percent of unionists voted for the AfD last year
Ironically, populist agitation falls flat in factories threatened with closure or mass layoffs. When AfD firebrand Björn Höcke last month showed up outside an Opel plant in Eisenach, Thuringia, he was booed down by demonstrators despite being one of the most prominent politicians in that eastern German state. And in Görlitz, Germany’s easternmost city, IG Metall won all 13 works council seats in a Siemens plant with an uncertain future.
This is why Mr. Nieke, the works council head, does not lose sleep over ZA’s relative success in the factory. He is quick to point out that the far-right union is far less successful in other Daimler plants.
Yet, the AfD’s increased visibility within Germany’s best-known and most successful companies is beginning to rattle nerves at the highest levels of management. “We’re monitoring this evolution with concern,” Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said. The carmaker issued a statement emphasizing its values of “diversity, tolerance and internationalization.”
On Wednesday, Joe Kaeser, the boss of Siemens, was much blunter. The CEO took to Twitter to rebuke AfD leader Alice Weidel for yet another anti-Muslim speech she gave in the German parliament earlier that day. “Ms. Weidel’s nationalism damages our country’s reputation in the world” and thus endangered “the main source of Germany’s prosperity,” he countered.
But Mr. Kaeser’s outburst on social media may do little to allay the fears and frustrations of employees in the face of top-down decisions and the digital transformations that disrupt their workplace. The far right has been actively targeting the German working class for years, said Lothar Probst, a political scientist. And the AfD could very well become their favorite party in the near future, as has its Austrian counterpart, the FPÖ, in the neighboring country.
“Workers are quite receptive to xenophobic and nationalist ideas,” Mr. Probst said, pointing to the 15 percent of trade unionists who cast their ballots for the AfD at the federal election last year. That’s more than the 12.6 percent the party got overall.
So even if the AfD does not actually enter works councils, its ideas are bound to permeate Germany’s labor unions, Mr. Probst believes. What damage this may wreak on the country’s export-oriented multinationals or family-owned Mittelstand businesses remains to be seen.
Alexander Demling is a reporter for Handelsblatt. Dietmar Neuerer is political correspondent for Handelsblatt Online. Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.