State elections Left Unites to Fight Elections

The Social Democratics and their old allies the trade unions are pursuing joint interests ahead of Germany's upcoming regional elections.
Sigmar Gabriel is wooing Germany's unions again.

Germany's biggest single trade union, IG Metall, does not tend to openly support one political side or another. Like the other members of the German Trade Union Association it sees itself as a united trade union, independent of party politics.

But a quick glance at the party manifestos for the state elections in Baden-Württemberg makes it clear which party is a perfect fit. IG Metall's aims match all the policies of the center left Social Democratic Party (SPD), currently the junior partner in Germany's left-right grand coalition.

You couldn’t really call it “the resurgence of an old romance,” declared IG Metall regional manager Roman Zitzelsberger. But in issues which affect employees there was more common ground, “now that the SPD no longer sees itself as a better version of the Conservative or Liberal party.”

The relationship between the  Social Democrats and the trade unions had sustained long-term damage, following the painful labor marker reforms that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented while in power in the 1990s. But now both institutions are pursuing joint interests: for the minimum wage, against part-time working contracts and further cuts in state pension levels.

And trade union bosses are coming out more openly in favor of the Social Democrats. For example, Michaela Rosenberger of the gastronomy trade union NGG and Robert Feiger of the construction workers union have just joined the party.

"Ever since the 2013 party conference in Leipzig we have had a more relaxed relationship," said Reiner Hoffmann, the head of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). "The SPD had realized that Mr. Schröder's agenda 2010 had led to massive distortions on the labor market and expansion of the low-wage sector.”

Sigmar Gabriel opened the doors at the economics ministry for a stronger corporatist policy. Wolfgang Schroeder, trade union researcher, University of Kassel

And Bernd Westphal, economic policy spokesman of the Social Democrat's parliamentary group, thinks his party is now reconciled with the trade unions. Now there is a “completely different mutual respect“ between social democrats and trade unionists, compared with just a few years ago, with more meetings between members of the two sides.

Mr. Westphal also stands personally for the symbiosis of trade union and party: From 1993 to 2013 he was full-time trade union secretary at the mining, chemicals and energy trade union IG BCE, ending up as board secretary at headquarters in Hanover. “The agenda 2010 reforms were correct, even if they needed adjusting,” says Mr. Westphal today. And these adjustments have been made.

The Labor minister Andrea Nahles is largely responsible for the rapprochement of recent years. The minister is herself a member of IG Metall. Her secretaries of state are also trade unionists: Thorben Albrecht at the services union Verdi, and Yasmin Fahimi at the IG BCE.

There is also a change perceptible in the vice chancellor and Social Democrat party leader. “Sigmar Gabriel opened the doors at the economics ministry for a stronger corporatist policy,” said Wolfgang Schroeder, trade union researcher at the University of Kassel. Mr. Gabriel was no longer just interested in the “working middle classes” he was also more aware of “normal people.”

According to Mr. Schroeder the Social Democrats and its leader had taken on board that while you might not win elections just with the trade unions on your side, it was not possible to pursue policies against them. The DGB wants to make the issue of poverty in old age the object of a major campaign before the next federal elections. And so it is not surprising that Mr.Gabriel, in his recent demand for a “solidarity project,” also came out against any further cuts in state pension levels.


Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. Klaus Stratmann is the deputy bureau chief of Handelsblatt in Berlin and covers the energy market. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]