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IG Metall Seeks Way out of Crisis with New Leadership

German union IG Metall elected hardline left-winger Jürgen Peters as its new chairman on Sunday in the worst poll result for an IG Metall leader. The move is hoped to end damaging internal disputes plaguing the union.


Newly elected IG Metall chairman Peters (right) with his deputy Huber.

600 delegates from Germany’s once powerful engineering and metalworkers’ union IG Metall elected a new leadership duo during a special meeting in Frankfurt on Sunday. IG Metall’s designated chairman, 59-year-old Jürgen Peters was confirmed as leader, while Berthold Huber, IG Metall’s Baden-Württemberg district manager, was elected his deputy.

The appointments came as no surprise with the pair widely tipped to take on the mantle in the run-up to the election, but the poor number of votes polled by Peters was unexpected.

Peters, a left-wing traditionalist and a highly controversial figure within the union after an ugly dispute over his role in a disastrous strike this spring, took just 66 percent of the vote making it the worst election result for an IG Metall chairman in more than 40 years. Huber did slightly better, raking in 67 percent.

Widely blamed for organizing a failed strike to cut working hours in eastern Germany at a time when unemployment in the region hovers around 18 percent, Peters struck a conciliatory tone on Sunday. He spoke of an "honest result" and requested his opponents for support. Hubers too said he wanted to try and convince those who hadn’t elected him.

New leadership hoped to end union crisis

The appointments, which represent a power-sharing agreement between the reformist and traditional wings of the union, are hoped to unite the organization and mend deep divisions that threaten to undermine Germany’s traditional process of collective bargaining.

The move is also expected to draw a line under bitter infighting that has crippled the union since its strike debacle in eastern Germany, which led to the acrimonious departure of former chairman Klaus Zwickel.

IG Metall, Germany’s second-largest with 2.56 million members from the metal, engineering, coal and steel industries, has also seen member numbers falling and finances drying up in recent months. In addition, recent surveys show that most German citizens are sceptical towards the union’s policies and find them too outdated and counterproductive.

Could Peters jeopardize the process?

However fears remain that Peters, a vocal critic of Chancellor Schröder’s radical labor market and social reforms, could antagonize employers’ associations and prompt an era of fierce confrontation between workers and bosses.

A day before his election, Peters once again railed against Schröder’s reforms, saying they would "further strangle the economy" and would not lead to any more jobs. "It is not ending unfairness, it is creating new justices," Peters said. The reforms include cuts in unemployment benefits and making it easier for companies to fire workers.

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