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Business

Opinion: 'We shape the future of work!'

Is it really the trade unions who shape the future of work? DW's Rolf Wenkel doesn't think so. But he believes Germany's unions will continue to have an important role to play in future nevertheless.

Almost exactly 125 years ago, in the wake of violent workers' protests in the American metropolis Chicago, unions began to use May 1 as an annual day of protest and celebration in the struggle for higher wages and more rights for workers. In Germany, for many years, politicians steadfastly refused to declare May 1 a holiday. It wasn't until 1934 that it was officially registered.

After the Second World War, the German Trade Union Federation often used May 1 as the kick-off date for campaigns to improve working conditions. In the mid-1950s, for example, the unions wanted employers to agree to a five-day work-week. After a long struggle, they succeeded. The campaign slogan remains unforgettable: "Saturdays, Daddy belongs to me!"

But Germany's trade union movement has rarely come up with such striking slogans for the international Day of Labor. Can anyone still remember the motto for May Day the year after the Berlin Wall came down? "Sharing connects," it said. That one was a both a puzzler and eminently forgettable.

This year, the German Trade Union Federation's May Day slogan is: "We shape the future of work!"

Alas, that sounds like whistling in the dark - defiant, but with overtones of a pipe dream. It sounds like a forlorn invocation aimed at bringing something back that has long since slipped out of reach.

Waning clout

The reality is that unions are suffering the same sort of fate as Christian churches and sports clubs: Dwindling, graying memberships, with a lot of men and too few women. Trade unionists complain that the Day of Labor is increasingly being used just to chill out in the beer garden, rather than to attend demonstrations for improving the condition of workers.

Portrait photo - Rolf Wenkel

Rolf Wenkel is a business editor at Deutsche Welle

The reasons are clear enough. First, German trade unions have had declining memberships for almost a quarter of a century, which was accompanied by an apparent loss of relevance and power. Second, German trade unions, under pressure from globalization, have spent the past decade fighting to preserve jobs, rather than for wage increases.

The modesty of German wage settlements since 2000 would perhaps have been even better suited to various other eurozone economies, whose rapid wage-level increases led them to lose competitiveness. As it was, over the course of a decade, Germany's economy went from being "the sick man of Europe" to the continent's undisputed economic locomotive, with booming exports and relatively low unemployment.

That was good, that was the right thing to do, at least from a German point-of-view. It lowered unit labor costs, as economists say, and that has made Germany more competitive than its neighbors.

However, it's not the unions who are "Shaping the Future of Work." Instead, the future of work in developed industrial nations such as Germany and Japan is being shaped by the demographic trends of an aging society.

The future of work is also being shaped by engineers and IT specialists who are working on the production systems of the future, under the headline "Industry 4.0."

Still needed

Studies from Oxford University researchers predict that in 20 years, every second job will be affected by the automation and digitization. It won't just be classic production-line jobs that are affected, but also professional white-collar occupations.

This prospect triggers fears: Are we running out of work? Is my job safe?

My guess is that the trade unions will play a rather conservative role in coming years. They'll try to preserve old roles, rights, and arrangements - but they won't shape the future of work. At best, they'll co-shape it to some extent.

But that doesn't mean their role won't be important. Wherever technical progress disrupts the classic world of work, wherever an end to the normal rhythms of working life is predicted, wherever freelancers replace full-time staff and a permanent state of occupational nomadism looks like the emerging norm - wherever these things seem to be taking shape on the economic and technological horizon, it can never hurt for strong unions to have a say in what happens. Now, and in future, it's the union that makes us strong.