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False successes - these figures show the real problem of the unions

Trade unions in Germany are finding it increasingly difficult to retain workers.

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False successes - these figures show the real problem of the unions

Trade unions in Germany are finding it increasingly difficult to retain workers. The proportion of civil servants in the organizations, on the other hand, is increasing significantly. This is the result of a survey by the Institute of German Economics (IW), which is exclusively available to WELT. The net union density in 2021 was 17.4 percent. This means that around every sixth employee is a union member.

"While the constellation of the labor market is constantly changing, the membership structure of the employee associations does not always develop in line with this," says study author Caroline Fulda. The IW analysis is based on data from the general population survey in the social sciences (Allbus). The years 2018 and 2021 were compared for the survey.

Almost every fourth worker is currently a union member. Union density was 21.9 percent in 2021, down 0.1 percentage points from 2018. Among white-collar workers, on the other hand, only 13.7 percent are unionized, a small change of 0.1 percent. This means that white-collar workers are underrepresented, because no other occupational group is growing so strongly.

In general, the trade unions have lost a large part of their members in a long-term comparison - and newcomers cannot fill the gap. Since reunification, the number of members in the eight sub-unions of the DGB has fallen by around half. In 2021 there were a total of 5,729,317 people. Only the police union and the railway union recorded a slight increase.

One reason for this is the aging society. "Furthermore, young workers seem to be more difficult to convince of union membership," says Fulda in an interview with WELT. And demographic change is accelerating this process. A large proportion of the over-50s, who are comparatively often organized, will retire from working life in the coming years. And among 18 to 49-year-olds, the degree of organization is only 14.8 percent.

In view of this development, it is all the more surprising that this year many wage rounds ended with an increase of almost 20 percent, be it port workers, airport staff or cleaning staff. The unions are quite a run at the negotiating table – at least until a few weeks ago.

But this is not necessarily due to the strength of the trade unions. “The high collective bargaining agreements in some sectors are also related to the shortage of skilled workers. Employers are under more pressure to offer something to their employees,” says Fulda. This was shown, for example, by the airport ground staff.

In the summer, after a day of strikes, a wage increase of sometimes 17 to 26 percent was negotiated. "Many employees have left the industry, now it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain new staff," says Fulda. The exciting question is whether the high degrees will bring the trade unions more traffic.

In any case, the crisis offers an opportunity to arouse interest among less organized groups. This should succeed, for example, through the newly created alliance

But Corona in particular has damaged the unions. "In some sectors, collective bargaining has been on hold for months since the outbreak of the 2020 pandemic," says Fulda.

"Union work thrives on contact and exchange," said IG Metall when asked. Short-time work, contact restrictions, the obligation to work from home and a lack of digital access rights would have severely affected the core of the work. According to the IW, precisely these factors also made negotiation conditions more difficult

Trade unions and employers met with Chancellor Scholz for the second time to discuss relief. "A rather symbolic meeting," says WELT chief economist Dorothea Siems. Scholz primarily wanted to convey his "We hook each other up" plea.

Source: WELT / Carsten Hädler

The trade unions themselves see other reasons for the decline in membership, such as structural change in the professional world and the declining number of trainees. "If there are fewer and fewer bakers, it won't be easier to attract a growing number of members," said the Food, Enjoyment and Restaurants Union (NGG) when asked.

According to IG Metall, "job cuts" also have a negative impact on the number of members. In fact, the number of workers in the metal and electrical industry has been increasing steadily since 2010. In the past two years, however, a significant decline has been recorded.

The public sector is exceptionally well organized. The degree of organization rose from 27.9 to 38.7 percent between 2018 and 2021. "The purely descriptive measured increase in the overall degree of organization is mainly driven by the civil servants," says the survey. At 8.2 percent, however, this group only makes up a small proportion of the workforce.

In the coming years, the point will also be reached where the majority of employees have an academic degree. In 2008, this applied to just over a third. In 2021, the 40 percent mark was exceeded - and the trend is rising. However, the level of organization among academics lags behind this development. It remained virtually unchanged at 15.4 percent.

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