The German Cabinet on Thursday approved a draft labour relations law that would simplify negotiations between corporations and unions. The draft law specified that for any corporation, only a single union would be recognised as the official wage-bargaining partner, and the resulting agreement would hold for all the company's employees.
"We're not actively interfering in the right to strike," said German labor minister Andrea Nahles. Instead, she said, the new law would provide an incentive for unions to work more closely together.
The legislation was inspired by the disruptions caused by frequent strikes during the past several months. 2014 has been a year in which small unions set up for specific professions - notably the airline pilots' union and the train drivers' union - pushed hard to achieve objectives specific to their relatively narrow guilds, at a heavy cost to the wider economy.
The train drivers' union, in particular, staged strikes motivated in part by demands for higher wages and better working conditions, but also, in part, over a demand that it be allowed to represent train personnel other than drivers - even though those personnel were already represented by a different union. Critics accused the union of disrupting business and holiday travel over an inter-union turf war.
Taming the niche unions
The German federal government has responded with a draft law that is meant to make it more difficult for small unions to paralyse businesses. Government, business, and large, multi-sectoral unions all agree that big unions are more likely to be flexible in their negotiations with corporate management, more likely to take into account the wider sectoral and economic ramifications of industrial action, and less likely to strike.
Until 2010, "Tarifeinheit" was the norm in Germany. That meant a single union was responsible for wage bargaining for all a company's employees - and sometimes, for entire industrial sectors, across many companies.
In 2010, however, Germany's Federal Labor Court softened up the principle of "one company, one collective agreement" in response to a lawsuit by the Marburger Bund, a German physicians' union. Since then, the German employers' association and the national trade union federation have both pushed for the principle to be reinstated.
This year's strikes by train drivers and pilots finally persuaded the government to take heed and try to write a law that would bring the niche unions to heel.
The national trade union federation was quick to endorse the draft law. But not all its member unions agreed. Verdi, a major union representing a wide range of service employees, opposed it as an interference in labor rights.
In contrast, mining, chemicals and energy sector union, IG BCE supported the law. So did IG Metall, the powerful metalworkers' union.
"By anchoring the principle of majority representation, the law is on the right path toward securing common bargaining agreements," said IG Metall union chief Detlef Wetzel.
Employers' association president Ingo Kramer said the new law would "stabilize collective bargaining, prevent bargaining processes from becoming shredded and disjoint, and reinforce the ability of agreements to secure labor peace."
In contrast, the profession-specific unions for physicians, pilots, and journalists were quick to claim that the draft law was a violation of labor rights guaranteed by the German constitution.
Labor minister Nahles was equally quick to reject their criticism. "We're very confident that this law is consistent with the constitution," she said.
She added that the new law does not impinge on the right to strike of profession-specific unions like the pilot's union, or the physicians' union - provided they limit their membership to a clearly defined professional group.
That would stop the train drivers' union, for example, from striking in order to grab market share from a rival union representing non-driver train personnel.