Critics see in Jürgen Peters a hardliner who represents outmoded union thinking. But supporters see in him a tough negotiator who can deliver results for workers, despite recent setbacks.
Jürgen Peters is expected to take the helm of IG Metall in August.
For Jürgen Peters, becoming chairman of IG Metall is a feather in the cap of a more than 30-year career at the metalworkers and engineers' union.
But the 59-year-old faces many challenges when he starts his four-year term in August. Peters and his future deputy, Baden Württemberg district leader Berthold Huber, will have to find unity within a deeply divided union and seek out a new direction for the 2.6 million member organization, which just suffered a stinging defeat over strikes in eastern Germany -- its worst in half a century.
Add to that the fact that the German labor movement is suffering from shrinking membership and waning political influence. In western Germany membership among workers fell from 29 percent in 1992 to 24 percent in 2003. The figures are worse for the eastern part of the country, where membership sank from 40 percent to 18 percent, partially owing to the large number of business failures there. Opinion polls also show that the public believes unions should play a less political role.
With so many factors playing against IG Metall, the jury is out on whether Peters is the right man for the job.
Detractors see in Peters a deeply entrenched traditionalist. They see a man so insistent on pushing through a 35-hour work week in eastern Germany that he was willing to risk jobs and the future of his union by calling a strike during one of the worst economic and labor crises Germany has faced in its postwar history. The strike outraged Germans after car factories in the western part of the country -- inluding those owned by Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler and BMW -- had to shut down because parts weren't being delivered from eastern plants, threatening profits in one of the country's most important industrial sectors.
Many also questioned the wisdom of calling a strike at a time when the economy is expected by many economists to shrink and the jobless rate is hovering at over 10 percent. Even East Germans criticized the strikes. With a staggering eastern unemployment rate of 18 percent, most workers are just happy to have jobs.
Critics also see in him a man obssessed with collective bargaining agreements at a time when economic conditions require flexible solutions that are custom tailored to individual companies.
A tough negotiator
His admirers however consider him a persistent and goal-oriented leader who is a tough negotiator and someone who can deliver results. "We want money, money and then some more money," is one of the quotes most often attributed to Peters. Supporters are fond of pointing out the successful deal he negotiated at Volkswagen in 1993, when IG Metall workers agreed to cut back to four days a week in order to prevent massive layoffs. His decision showed he could be capable of negotiating innovative agreements. Later, he helped negotiate a wage agreement for the production of a new Volkswagen car that linked wages with production goals and helped stop the company from moving more jobs abroad.
He has also proven popular with the union's core supporters with his folksy, working class slogans like "Millions are stronger than millionaires" or his lashing criticisms of Germany's recent "neo-liberal thoughts." Part of the union's left-wing faction, he has consistently spoken out against neoliberal voices within IG Metall. Peters has been one of the most outspoken critics of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Agenda 2010 plan – a package of reforms that seeks to resuscitate the economy by, among other things, making it easier to hire and fire employees and reducing unemployment benefits.
A slow rise to the top
Born in 1944 in the town of Bolken in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, Peters later became a trained machinist and at a company called Hanomag in Hanover. He became a member of IG Metall in 1961. His career as a machinist ended after he took a job inside the union. He then studied at the Akademie der Arbeit (Labor Academy) in Frankfurt, becoming a teacher at one of the union's teaching centers while while working for its chairman. Slowly but surely he worked his way up the union ladder.
In 1976, he began working in IG Metall's Düsseldorf office, where he experienced the devastating crisis in the steel industry in the Rhine, Ruhr and Saarland regions from the front lines. In 1988, Peters became the head of IG Metall's Hanover district.
Klaus Zwickel and Jürgen Peters
A decade later in 1998 Peters ran to become the union's deputy chief, against the will of outgoing IG Metall chairman Klaus Zwickel (photo, left). In that position, he assumed responsibility for IG Metall's collective bargaining. Throughout, Zwickel has been very public about his distaste for Peters and the fact that he preferred the more reform-oriented Huber as his eventual successor.
In recent weeks, Zwickel blamed Peters for the failed strike and repeatedly called for his resignation. Unable to win the leadership battle with his heir apparent, Zwickel resigned on Tuesday.