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Opinion: Yearning for the past may be useless

The German parliament has passed a new collective bargaining law. DW's Rolf Wenkel says it will not stand the test of time, because it may well be unconstitutional and not lead to the desired effects.

Until 2010, the world had been in order for policymakers, employers and trade unions in Germany. The Germans were proud of their social partnership model. Employers and unions in the country treated each other with due respect. The rule back then was "one company, one union," although it was a rule that had never been set in stone.

Nevertheless, together with the freedom of forming coalitions it was a pillar of Germany's post-war economy and was viewed as a direct result of what unions had experienced during the Nazi dictatorship. Back then, it was so easy for the Nazis to smash the heavily fragmented trade union movement.

The new rules that came after the end of the war were designed to make sure there would be no repetition of that, and they worked well for about six decades, if the comparatively low number of strike days in Germany was anything to go by. But in 2010, the country's top judges declared the very principle of one company, one union unconstitutional. Since then, different, rival unions have been able to push for different bargaining agreements for employees belonging to the same profession.

People living in Germany have painfully experienced the consequences of that development in recent months, with pilots and train drivers repeatedly resorting to strikes, discomforting millions of travelers and commuters.

Back to the roots?

And now the government wants to return to the good old times when smaller unions wielded less power. If there's a row between two rival unions in a company, the one with the most members will be empowered to negotiate a

collective bargaining agreement

so as to avoid unjust wage disparities.

Although no mention is made in the law of the right to strike, smaller, profession-specific unions fully realize that the right is going to be taken away from them which would eventually strip them of their appeal and basis of existence. This is because employers will no longer have to negotiate collective wage agreements with these unions.

It is therefore no wonder the unions affected will take the matter to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. And their chances of obtaining a favorable ruling from the court seem rather high, experts maintain.

Breach of constitutional rights

So, what we're seeing is the government's pitiful attempt to go back to the good old times by passing a law without any careful consideration.

The "one company, one union" principle cannot be reinstated, despite all the positive impact it used to have in the past.

Yearning for the past is useless. Furthermore, by reintroducing the principle, the government may achieve something quite contrary to what it calls collective bargaining unity, as it would involve determining which union represents most employees in a company or a given profession.

That could increase competition among unions. And loudmouths like the head of the train drivers' union, Claus Weselsky, who has unnerved millions of travelers, may well come in vogue again.

Just how immature the new law is is born out by the fact that it drives a wedge between the unions themselves. Among the eight big industry unions represented in the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), three are opposed to it, among them the service-sector union Verdi and the teachers' union, GEW. In some companies they have such a weak representation that their chances of influencing the collective bargaining process wil become negligible. Such a vacuum may be the ideal breeding ground for more loudmouths.

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