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Demonstrators with poster Foto: Andreas Gebert dpa/lby
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Landmark ruling

Rachel Gessat / db
November 21, 2012

Are people employed by church organizations allowed to strike? Trade unions said 'yes;' the churches said 'no.' The German Federal Labor Court has now ruled they are allowed to strike under certain conditions.


Extremely low wages and a trend toward hiring temp workers in hospitals and retirement homes run by Christian charitable organizations sparked the current debate. Major trade unions, among them Verdi and Marburger Bund, called for church staff to join in strike action in response to the poor working conditions at Germany's main denominational charities, the Protestant Church's Diakonie and the Catholic Caritas.

The employers - the Protestant and Catholic churches respectively - took the case to the Federal Labor Court in the eastern city of Erfurt. To no avail, however. The judges ruled - just as lower courts had ruled before them - that a general ban on strike action for the 1.2 million people employed by the churches and their welfare organizations was not acceptable.  


Church labor legislation differs significantly from laws that apply to other employees in several crucial points and has been a topic of debate in Germany for many years. According to Germany's constitution, religious communities have the right to manage their own affairs, Georg Bier, a professor of ecclesiastical law at Freiburg University, points out. "That allows them to formulate their own labor laws," Bier told Deutsche Welle, adding that that also included negotiating work contracts.

Traditionally, Germany has two types of work contracts. Civil servants work for the state and cannot be fired. The employer determines salaries. Civil servants do not have the right to strike. Then, there are employees: Trade agreements between employer and employee determine work conditions and wages. Here, strike action is an option in case of disagreement. Germany's church organizations have chosen another approach: work contracts are negotiated in commissions staffed with equal representation by employers and employees.

German church leaders Foto: Arno Burgi dpa/lsn/lby/lmv/lni/lno +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Churches are Germany's largest employers after the governmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Strikes and lockouts are not part of this scenario, Georg Bier says, based on the assumption of church service "where everyone has the same goal, where employers and employees do not stand opposed, but form a community." The church regards itself as an "ambassador of the gospel" and a "community of believers" - both have different functions, but act as one in the end.

Caught between economics and Christian ideals

For many years, both the Protestant and the Catholic Church aligned their wage policies for the most part with those negotiated in the public service sector. In the 1990s, however, the BAT pay scale was abolished and the churches began to work out their own system - above all for economic reasons, says Tobias Jacobi, a political scientist at Göttingen University. "At that time, there was increased pressure on church organizations to economize in the health sector, because new rules in the sector shifted costs and risks to hospital and retirement home providers," he told Deutsche Welle.

Dr. Tobias Jakobi Bildrechte: Tobias Jakobi
The battle lines are drawn, so the court had to decide, Jakobi saysImage: privat

In the mid-1990s, a trend toward outsourcing simple tasks, such as cleaning, developed within the church organizations, Jacobi says. Meanwhile, there is a countermovement, he adds; for one, because it turned out that outside companies were not necessarily less expensive and also, because outsourcing does not correspond to the churches' concept of communal service.

Dispute smolders

But working conditions for church staff have changed for the worse, Georg Bier argues. "There are organizations within the church that employ temporary staff and pay low wages," he says. Employees are increasingly interested in being able to more successfully defend themselves against what are regarded as unjust policies, he says.

Caritas runs hosptials and senior residents' homesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That includes, at a push, going on strike for better wages. Letting a court decide the issue is the only way to reach a binding solution, Tobias Jacobi says. It's a long-drawn out conflict, the battle lines are drawn between the unions and the churches, even between employers and staff, so "the only option is a court ruling."

Possibly, the labor court's decision on strike action for church employees is not the last word in the matter. The conflicting parties - trade unions and the churches - have announced they will take the issue higher in case of defeat - to the Federal Constitutional Court. 

Even that might not be the last stage in the dispute. Currently, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is taking a close look at a very similar matter. Romanian priests filed a lawsuit with the court because they want to establish a union, which the Romanian government has prohibited. A ruling in the Romanian case is expected in a few months. It could also resolve the situation in Germany once and for all.

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