German workers are renowned in industrial world circles for the cushy conditions upon which they luxuriously lounge. But just how do they get them? Not, it seems, by downing their tools and screaming injustice.
"Strike", it says, but that's easier said than done in Germany.
In a study of strike culture in developed countries published last week by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), German workers emerged as some of the most reluctant strikers. The report, which observed walk-out tendencies in the 30 members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), revealed that between 1991 and 2000, German workers notched up a meager 9.3 annual strike days per 1,000 employees.
Only Austrian, Japanese and Swiss employees recorded even greater committment to work, while at the other end of the scale, the number climbed surely and steadily to its Canadian peak of 189 annual strike days within the same time frame.
Picket lines are a relative rarity in Germany
The discrepancy leaves room for considerable questions. Why is it that German workers, who are generally not afraid of grumbling about anything less than the best, rarely have to erect a picket line in order to get what they want? The answers, says Jan Jurczyk of the service industry trade union, Verdi, are manifold.
“In essence, it is not very easy to strike in Germany. We have a highly developed collective agreement system and strike action can only be taken in connection therewith,” Jurczyk said. “Political strikes are not allowed and neither is industrial action organized by a small number of employees. At least not legally.”
Heading the union call
On the contrary, strikers can only become such if rallied to do so by their union, and even they have limited power to make that call. The collective agreements, which cover things like pay, holiday, working hours and pensions, severely limit the opportunities for employees to walk out at all.
“As long as the agreement is valid, which generally varies between one and two years, there can be no strikes. And then after the contract between the union and employer has expired, there is still a grace period of several weeks in which there can also be no walk outs,” Jurczyk said.
No ballot, no strike
And even when that period, known as a “peace obligation” is over, strike action must be endorsed by at least 75 percent of union members. A further “hurdle,” says Jurczyk, is the employers’ right to enforce a lockout, in which the entire workforce, strikers and non-strikers alike, are barred from the premises.
Strike action must be last resort
The whole system is designed to discourage escalation of disputes at every turn, and to instead encourage communication between the voice of the employees, the unions, and the employers. And it is well oiled. Dr. Heiner Dribbusch works for the Institute for Economic and Social Research (WSI) in the Hans Böckler Foundation, which is a research institute related to the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB).
He says that although when push comes to shove, German workers are willing to exercise their, albeit limited, right to strike, they use it sparingly. And the same, he says, is true of the unions.
Union-backed demonstrations precede industrial action
“Unions are doubtless interested in having as few restrictions as possible, so they can be the ones who make the decisions,” Dribbusch said. “But that said, they don’t use every opportunity they have to strike, which suggests that they don’t want to.”
And one good reason for that is the generous replacement wages which unions have to pay to their striking members. “Unions are cautious when it comes to calling for industrial action, not least because of the expense of having to fork out strike money,” Jurczyk said. “Employees get paid more or less the same by the unions as they receive in their basic pay packet, and in a large workforce, that can add up to huge amounts of money.”
Too good to remain true?
Like so many German systems, the strike prevention one is precisely structured and designed to be of some benefit to everyone concerned. And for those who do enjoy a right to strike, which public servants in Germany incidentally do not, it is a system which has, over the past half decade, proved its worth.
“Take the chemical industry, for example, it has only witnessed one strike since the end of the war. Many employees in Germany will go through their working life never having experienced any industrial action,” Dribbusch said.
A taste of things to come?
But there are signs that things are changing. In the current economic climate, the demand for employment far outstrips the supply, and Jurczyk says that is affecting the way in which collective agreements are negotiated.
“Employers’ associations have begun to react to employees’ demands in a more aggressive way, and to respond to them with counter demands. They're using the levels of unemployment as a threat to the existing workforce,” he said. “Whether such behavior will lead to more strikes, we don’t know. It hasn’t been decided yet.”