Opinion: Unions Demand Much, Yet Lack Vision | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.05.2006
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Opinion: Unions Demand Much, Yet Lack Vision

May 1 is Labor Day in Europe. This year, the German Confederation of Trade Unions has organized festivities based on the slogan "Your Dignity is Our Yardstick."


Union members at a Leipzig rally

"Times have gotten tougher: human dignity has become vulnerable again," Michael Sommer, Director of the German Confederation of Trade Unions said regarding this year's Labor Day motto.

Sommer lists the negative effects of globalization on Germans, with one consequence being that employment does not protect people from poverty. More than 2.5 million people work for poverty wages, which means they earn less than half of the average German gross wage of 1,442 euros a month ($1,820). Another 5 million people work for low wages.

That corresponds with statistics the Federal Statistical Office recently published that showed that ever fewer Germans can live from gainful employment. One in three Germans, the statistics say, are subsidized by family members -- it's an alarming number.

Minimum wage is necessary

Based on those statistics, the German Confederation of Trade Unions is making demands: a minimum wage is needed, for instance. It says no one should have to work for less than 7.50 euros an hour. In addition, the Confederation is demanding that the German government not loosen job protection protection laws further, as they are economically counterproductive since employed people in secure jobs refrain from spending money.

Demonstration der Gewerkschaften, Tag der Arbeit

Union chief Michael Sommer (third from right) takes charge

The Confederation believes the announced increase of the retirement age from 65 to 67 should also be repealed since the real age of retirement lies around 60 anyway. The Conderation says that the older age for retirement is nothing other than a disguised attempt to slash pensions.

At various Labor Day rallies around the country, union bosses will be voicing these demands loudly to the government -- and will involuntarily anchor a particular image of the unions in the public's eye. Once viewed as organizations with progressive shaping power, unions are now seen by the public more as conservative institutions constantly defending the status quo.

Yet impeding or reversing progress, leaving everything as it is -- these are not the solutions for the reforms so needed in our society, reforms which surveys show more and more Germans feel are necessary.

Unions losing members

The unions therefore shouldn't be surprised when their members leave the organizations and when employees in small and mid-sized companies, in modern sectors like the IT industry, but also women and children, are not interested in being a part of the unions.

Dignity, solidarity, self-determination, a fair share -- all are nice words that unions like to use profusely, but they are not a substitute for solutions to the problems in a society that is becoming increasingly complicated, diverse, labor-divided -- and older.

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