Labor Demographics A Shrinking Labor Movement

Trade unions are struggling to profit from Germany's low unemployment rate. Changing demographics are keeping membership numbers low.
With declining membership, demonstrating for wage increases might not as effective as in the past.

When Jörg Hofmann, the head of the IG Metall labor union, recently looked over last year's balance sheets, he said he liked what he saw. In particular, the fact that membership numbers had stayed remarkably steady.

At the end of 2016, there were 2,274,033 members in one of the world’s largest labor unions – just 290 more than the previous year. IG Metall was lucky, though. Almost every union within Germany's Trade Union Confederation (DGB) shrank during the same period. The only organization that saw numbers rise significantly was the German Police Union, bolstered by fears over national security.

Meanwhile, Germany's labor market seems to know no bounds. Almost 43.6 million people were employed in December, with unemployment falling to its lowest level since reunification, in what's Germans are referring to as a "job miracle."

However trade unions are having trouble translating that into good times of their own. IG BCE, Germany’s third-largest trade union, for the mining, chemical and energy industries, was hit hard by the end of coal mining, with membership sinking by just over 1 percent. It would have fallen further if it weren't for new membership in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals sectors.

01 p10 Downward Trend-01 union membership IG Metall Verdi Ver.di IG BCE GEW IG BAu NGG EVG Gewerkschaft der Polizei police

The Food, Beverage and Catering Union (NGG) complains that job cuts at traditionally large companies such as Kellogg's and Coca-Cola are also affecting their numbers.

Young people are increasingly choosing university or technical colleges over the trade professions. According to Frank Bsirske, head of the Ver.di services union, high fluctuation and low earnings in the service industry are a big the problem. He said keeping membership up is a "challenge."

But the biggest threat to trade unions is still indisputably the country's changing demographics. The German Education Union (GEW) has gained more than 30,000 new members in eight years by engaging students in vocational schools. The Railway Workers’ Union (EVG) has managed to sign up 80 percent of junior staff members. However, the employees are aging faster than new members can be recruited. In Ver.di and GEW a quarter of the membership has already retired. With IG Metall and IG BCE, it’s around 30 percent.

IG Metall has decided it must counterbalance its deaths and departures by recruiting around 115,000 new members. It will invest €191 million over the next nine years in this recruitment drive. In the face of the “jobs miracle" it's a show of strength to hold up the union membership rate.

This is how the union has managed to continually grow by 6 percent since 2010. However, the number of employees in the metal and electronics industry rose nearly 11 percent during the same period.

According to political scientist Wolfgang Schroeder, it is becoming increasingly difficult for labor representatives to maintain their influence in the economy. “Trade unions are strong where there are also strong workers’ councils and staff councils,” he said.

In the elderly care sector, only around a quarter of employees are in companies with such labor bodies, which are essential to protecting workers’ rights.

“Correspondingly, the union membership rate is low at 10 percent,” he said.

Faced with the prospect of decreased collective bargaining power, some employees may start to question whether paying union membership fees is still really worthwhile.

Which is why the unions are trying to find new ways to recruit young people and other new target groups. Thanks to Germany's dual vocational education system, or work-and-study programs, 44,000 students are members of IG Metall today, nearly five times as many as 10 years ago.

Whether that’s enough to fight back against demographic change, only next year’s membership numbers will tell.


Frank Specht covers the labor market and labor relations for Handelsblatt. To contact him: [email protected]