Curbing Unions A Misguided New Strike Law

After numerous strikes in Germany, a new law passed last week seeks to streamline labor negotiations by restricting the power of smaller unions. It won't help, according to Handelsblatt's labor market correspondent.

 It really works! Finally, the train drivers' union GDL and German rail operator Deutsche Bahn have realized they can't resolve their muddled wage dispute on their own. Two arbitrators will first of all try to calm tempers. It remains to be seen whether the mediators will be able to induce the opponents to retreat from their unyielding positions.

The realization comes late. Deutsche Bahn alone has lost at least €300 million in the nine strikes up to now. There are proposals to bring such wage disputes to the arbitration table sooner in the future. Especially in areas where a strike hurts not only employers but also uninvolved third parties: commuters who wait fruitlessly for a train, passengers whose flights are canceled, parents who don’t know what to do with their children when kindergartens are closed.

Where the wage landscape is in fact fragmented, as at Deutsche Bahn and even more at Lufthansa, the law wouldn't actually help in cases of doubt.

It would have been feasible to impose compulsory attempts at arbitration ― as demanded by some in the CDU’s business wing and suggested by notable experts in labor law. But the federal government opted for the so-called “grand solution.”

And so the Bundestag, the German parliament’s lower house, on Friday voted in favor of a law on uniform wage structures for employee groups. The law was crafted by Germany's labor minister, Andreas Nahles, a member of the Social Democrats.

Outwardly, the right-left federal coalition government is demonstrating a vigorous determination to put train drivers or pilots in their places if their strikes once again paralyze half the country. Within the governmental parties, however, another motivation exists: to quickly get the unpopular measure before judges to sort out work-related constitutional problems.

The justification for the law has been shaky for a good while. Ever since the Federal Labor Court overturned the basic principle of “one company, one wage agreement,” employers have been citing the danger of circumstances such as those in Britain in the pre-Thatcher era: strikes by hundreds of unions that brought economic activity to a standstill. But Germany is far removed from these sorts of “English conditions.”

Fears that unionized fire-safety brigades at industrial plants would bring chemical production to a screeching halt have up to now been unrealized. And where the wage landscape is in fact fragmented, as at Deutsche Bahn and even more at Lufthansa, the law wouldn't actually help in cases of doubt.

The broad consensus that the government made a precondition for the law long ago disintegrated. Rainer Hoffmann, the head of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB), is evasive when asked to explain how the labor association can continue to support the legislation when three of its member unions have stepped out of line and another member, the umbrella labor association Ver.di, is threatening to challenge the law's constitutionality.

So employers are drumming all the more loudly in favor of the law. The New Journal of Labor Law periodical has printed a special issue in which constitutional expert Rupert Scholz attests to the law's conformity to the constitution. The foreword in the paid-for insert was written by Ingo Kramer, president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations.

Nor does the governing coalition still support the law unanimously. From the very beginning, the word from the center-left Social Democrats circle was that during the coalition negotiations, the Christian Democrats were more passionate in their support the issue. But in the meantime, some center-right parliamentarians in the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have become appalled that their own group is pushing through the law despite all the constitutional caveats from its own legal experts.

It is a part of the coalition agreement — and must accordingly be implemented. After the controversies about the minimum wage, electricity routes in the power grid and financial relations between the states and the federal government, the coalition has little interest in engaging in further quarrels.

And so out of coalition considerations, the federal government is risking not only a loss of face at the Federal Constitutional Court. Soon the coalition will perhaps have to explain to consternated citizens why pilots and engine drivers are still able to strike despite the new law.

Because when the law has been ratified, the real problems begin. Labor courts will have to resolve the issues of what exactly constitutes a business and which union has the most members there. How can they be counted without violating privacy protection? Until the courts have decided issues such as these, the relevant wage contracts may have long ago ended up in the wastepaper basket.

If the political establishment really wants to prevent a heap of strikes from occurring, it will have to pass a law limiting the right to strike. The coalition lacks the courage to take on the labor unions. But it also lacks the courage to withdraw a piece of legislation that scarcely anyone still supports, is constitutionally problematic, will impose lots of work on labor courts yet produce very little. Because it would have been easy to keep it on the back burner if Germany is ever in fact faced with “English conditions.”


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