Detlef Wetzel Union Man Launches Industry Alliance

The head of Germany’s largest trade union talks about cooperating with industry to keep business and jobs from leaving the country.
Detlef Wetzel.

The Alliance for Industry is being formed in Berlin this week, and it is largely an initiative of Detlef Wetzel. The 62-year-old has been head of IG Metall, Germany's largest trade union, since November 2013. Mr. Wetzel is convinced that this time the dialogue between employers, trade unions and politicians will yield more success than in the past, as all sides have more shared interests. He sat down with Handelsblatt's Frank Specht to explain.


Mr. Wetzel, what do you hope will come out of the Alliance for Industry?  

Detlef Wetzel: We have to make business, politics and society aware of the fact that industry is our basis for economic success, and its further development cannot be taken for granted. A shortfall in investment, affordable electricity, digitalization, securing qualified workers – all these are questions that politicians, industry trade unions and employers have to find the answers to together.

Also because many political initiatives have not been going smoothly up to now?  

Yes, that is one reason. You could cite the energy transition [Germany's shift from nuclear and fossil fuel to renewable energy] as an example. And there are many challenges that have not even been really taken up yet, like the Industry 4.0 plan to digitalize industry. More has to happen, that is the clear message.

How effective can the alliance be?  

We certainly don’t want to be the extended arm of the economics ministry and therefore need our own platform. I am thinking of a kind of association. In any case, we need financing and offices outside the ministry.

Is there a certain lack of trust toward politicians?

Not at all. But the alliance is also there to make proposals to politicians, some of which might well be awkward, or perhaps not on their agenda right now. We also know that the willingness of society and business to consider our ideas works best when we operate on an independent platform – that wouldn’t work if the alliance was supported exclusively by the ministry.

Alliances and commissions are already focusing on Industry 4.0, investment and electro-mobility. Are we in danger of “summititis”?

We have to make sure that the results of various activities don’t just land in a file somewhere. So first we need concrete projects, and then effective communication. After that, we need coordination within the alliance, so the many “summit ideas” are actually implemented.

From the employers’ point of view, competitiveness is under threat, for example, by the planned regulation of temporary workers and service contracts. Is that something the alliance will discuss?

No, certainly not. We have parliamentary debates and wage negotiations – these are the forums in which to exchange arguments about temporary workers and service contracts.

Wage Negotiations in Germany-01

But with so many controversial topics, isn’t there a danger of it all ending badly – as it did with the Alliance for Work 17 years ago? 

The way the Alliance for Work was set up, it was inevitably going to be asking too much of all participants, especially the trade unions. At that time it was all about controversial topics. Today it concerns issues that can be agreed upon by consensus.

For example?  

Let’s take society’s acceptance of industry, or the challenge of assuring there is an ongoing supply of qualified workers. There is considerable common ground there, which we should use. For other topics, like wage policy, we have our own arenas.

Which battles will you be fighting there?

We will continue to negotiate with the metal industry employers’ association about working time models, geared to the different life phases of workers. But here we need the legislators to provide the framework.

An alliance-working group is currently looking into the competitiveness of industry. Aren’t you directly endangering that with your latest wage settlement?  

Even if we had agreed on a zero-percent settlement, we would have had critics. This pay settlement also had a lot of support from companies. There are other factors more decisive for competitiveness than 3.4 percent higher wages for metalworkers. For example, we have a shortfall in structural investment that goes back 20 years. We have to see how we can generate capital to deal with it.

The economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, wants private investors to take part in financing the expansion of infrastructure. Is that a good idea?  

That is one way, which can be discussed. But it can’t just be a strategy of hidden subsidies for insurance companies and big banks. The investment must be open to everyone and not be higher than the public financing component.

Do you find the economics minister open-minded to industry's concerns?  

Yes. If the government wasn’t interested in industry, there would be no alliance.

What do you think of Mr. Gabriel’s more business-friendly course?

I don’t even know what a more “business-friendly course” is. If you take the minimum wage, you get very different answers depending on whom you ask. There are also many companies that are glad that fair competition has been restored, through minimum wage protection.

We are now hearing complaints about bureaucracy and a call to ban what some see as more burdens on business.  

My recommendation to the business sector is to concentrate on important matters and not sham issues, like having to keep records of working time. In most cases that was the rule for years anyway, but many employers clearly do not stick to it. As long as we are arguing about such matters, it makes me really worry about Germany as a business location, because there is a danger that important players do not fulfill their obligations.

In the final analysis, won’t the Alliance for Industry just agree on the lowest common denominator?

It’s not about the lowest common denominator. It’s about identifying shared topics and interests. I am convinced that the alliance will be a success if we agree in principle and don’t have unrealistic expectations of each other.


Frank Specht is based in Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact him: [email protected].