Union Boss on German Labor Market: 'We Need a Bond Between Companies and Workers'

Berthold Huber is leader of Germany's powerful IG Metall union, which represents metal workers. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about the rise of worker exploitation in Germany and how unions helped prevent a double-dip recession.

Berthold Huber, 62, is head of the IG Metall union: "We should treat people decently and fairly." Zoom
Tim Wegner / DER SPIEGEL

Berthold Huber, 62, is head of the IG Metall union: "We should treat people decently and fairly."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Huber, a small union of air traffic controllers is fighting for massive increases in pay at Frankfurt Airport. Can they count on your solidarity?

Huber: Generally speaking, workers deserve solidarity. In this particular case, though, I'm quite cautious, because this niche union is not concerned about the rest of the workforce at Frankfurt Airport. My sympathy for Lufthansa, however, is also limited, since in the past it promoted the fragmentation of labor representatives in order to break the power of the precursor to the Verdi (service workers) union. It seems the company has summoned up a specter that now it can't get rid of.

SPIEGEL: Highly specialized professional groups exist in the metalworking industry as well, where your union represents workers. Do you worry those groups will leave IG Metall in order to achieve more benefits for themselves under their own initiative?

Huber: So far, thank God, we have stable conditions. The idea of solidarity is more pronounced in industry than in the service sector. Our task is to create a pay structure that all groups can work with. For special groups, such as company fire departments, we reach additional agreements.

SPIEGEL: Should lawmakers intervene to prevent small interest groups from exploiting their power?

Huber: They could have done so long ago if the government had kept its agreements. IG Metall's position on Tarifeinheit ("uniform tariffs") …

SPIEGEL: … the long-established principle whereby there can only be one collective bargaining agreement in a given company …

Huber: … has always been clear. I sacrificed four weekends in 2008 toward finding a solution. We wanted the collective labor agreement in effect at a particular company to be that of the union with the most members in the company. At the time, employers rejected this. Two years later, they fixed their position on the matter, but by that point we had a different government. With the (business-friendly) Free Democratic Party as her coalition partner, Chancellor Angela Merkel was no longer able to keep the Tarifeinheit principle.

SPIEGEL: But Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen has now announced a change to the law.

Huber: Then she should make that change. I'm tired of the endless announcements.

SPIEGEL: IG Metall is demanding a 6.5 percent pay increase in the upcoming round of bargaining, arguing on the basis of the good economic situation in Germany. Your last labor agreement was negotiated during the difficult years of the financial crisis, with a total pay increase of 2.7 percent and a contract valid for two years. Are you looking for a kind of bonus now to make up for those lean years?

Huber: This is not a bonus.

SPIEGEL: What is it, then?

Huber: Let me remind you that in February 2010, because of poor economic conditions, we received a one-off payment of just a few euros, and no increase until 2011. Our people accepted this agreement and continue to do so. Nor was there a debate over any sort of extra pay at any point during the term of that contract. Starting in mid-2010, the economy recovered faster than expected. Some of the credit for that goes to us, because we were the ones who created the conditions for this V-shaped recovery with our call to expand the short-time working program (ed's note: The short-time working program helps prevent lay-offs during a recession by allowing firms to temporarily reduce working hours while the government funds some of the difference in workers' lost income and benefits).

SPIEGEL: Which is why you now want a bonus.

Huber: It seems you're stuck on that term, which is not correct here. But getting to the point: Economic cycles have become more erratic and economic development is far more volatile than it once was. The deep slump after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 could no more have been predicted than the speedy recovery that began in the second half of 2010. In other words, it's necessary that we be allowed to look at the past. That's the logical conclusion, considering the very long duration of this labor agreement and the new economic situation.

SPIEGEL: But employers reject this.

Huber: Only because a look at the past isn't convenient for them now. In 2010, by comparison, looking at the past was convenient. We reached a very conservative agreement out of concern for jobs and companies' very existences.

SPIEGEL: In 2008, at first you demanded 8 percent, but then the economy collapsed in an unprecedented way. Might that not happen to you again, for example if the euro zone falls apart?

Huber: I can't rule that out completely, but if I always kept in mind everything that could possibly happen, we couldn't ask for pay increases at all.

SPIEGEL: Because of uncertain conditions, employers don't want to continue negotiating pay according to the old pattern. Instead of continual increases, they want to stabilize salaries, with sizeable lump-sum payments in times of economic prosperity and pay freezes during times of crisis.

Huber: Such nonsense. The cost of living isn't stabilized either. Rent costs rise continually, as does the price of food and gas.

SPIEGEL: Your looking-at-the-past policy would be a first in the history of labor negotiations.

Huber: For God's sake, last year we had some of the highest net profits in history. Under conditions like these, we should treat people decently and fairly. With a net profit margin of 20 percent, Porsche could easily pay a 10 percent salary increase. Many other companies are in the same situation. The fact that we're only asking for 6.5 percent shows that we're orienting ourselves toward companies in general, and not going overboard. We know what we can ask for and we don't want to ask too much of anyone. I have no interest in driving into a dead end at full speed again, as we did in 2008.

SPIEGEL: Even more than the pay increases, employers are skeptical of your additional demands for permanent contracts for all trainees, and for employees to have more say in the use of temporary workers.

Huber: We want security for young people. We won't accept further probation periods after training is complete. Currently, this is the case for around two-thirds of those who have trained in the metalworking and electronics industries. In total, well over 30 percent of people under 25 now move into fixed-term contracts, temporary jobs or contract work after they complete their training (ed's note: as opposed to getting traditional employment contracts with the associated job security and benefits). It can't continue this way.

SPIEGEL: Do you want to force companies that train more people than they need to also hire more people than they need?

Huber: Of course not, but the company's works council needs to have a say. They can determine whether that is really the case, or just an excuse. In general, what we want is for young people to enter into stable working conditions, rather than having to put up with a precarious work situation for 10, 20 years or more.

SPIEGEL: Won't this problem solve itself on its own, thanks to demographic shifts? Young workers will be in short supply in the future as the German population ages.

Huber: The fact is that the number of people working under precarious conditions has increased, while the number of full-time workers has decreased from 29.4 to 23.9 million since the early 1990s. The number of temporary employees has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and there are more and more contract workers …

SPIEGEL: … whereby positions are filled by people working for third-party companies, allowing firms to skirt regulations on temporary workers.

Huber: I fear this development will continue. The models being discussed on the employers' side all amount to an ever-smaller core workforce.

SPIEGEL: And how do you plan to stop that development?

Huber: It's a Sisyphean task. This struggle will never end. But the question of stable labor contracts is one of the central questions for the future, well beyond Germany. I fear the social responsibility associated with ownership will disappear as employers feel responsible for fewer and fewer people. It would be fatal for the manufacturing industry to follow the example of the financial industry, which neither has national borders, regulations nor restrictions.

SPIEGEL: Is the traditional relationship between employers and employees in Germany, which was a kind of social partnership, disintegrating?

Huber: I prefer a social state to a social partnership. But yes, the trend is toward disintegration. But it is not yet so badly eroded that it could not be saved. For the kind of innovative and committed high-quality work (that characterizes German industry), we need a firm bond between companies and employees.

SPIEGEL: A highly qualified core workforce is at the heart of German industry and its success. Are you accusing employers of casually compromising that?

Huber: I'm not accusing anyone of anything. But I'll state clearly that the number of people in precarious employment situations has increased massively and continues to increase.

SPIEGEL: In the metalworking industry, 10 percent of employees are temporary workers. Won't you cause problems with the core workforce if you make such strong efforts on behalf of this minority, perhaps at the expense of your traditional clientele?

Huber: Many of these so-called core employees have experience with precarious working conditions within their own families. Besides, people don't only look at their own wallets. They find it unfair if a colleague does the same work that they do but doesn't even earn half their salary.

SPIEGEL: Employers argue that they need temporary workers in order to be flexible and competitive.

Huber: One-third of German companies get along fine without temporary workers. But I'm not looking to ban temporary work. I simply want to limit it and improve conditions. I won't accept the core workforce being forced out and replaced by temporary workers being paid bargain-basement wages.

SPIEGEL: Your demands have met with grim resistance. Do you expect a strike?

Huber: I won't talk about a strike until negotiations have failed. But if employers insist on taking a "master of the house" position on the subject of trainees -- saying, in effect, "I decide who I hire" -- then it will be difficult.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe you'll be able to get your people out on the streets over this issue, if employers make concessions in terms of pay?

Huber: Yes, IG Metall isn't just a moneymaking machine. I trust my colleagues. They want justice, and not only for themselves.

Interview conducted by Armin Mahler and Janko Tietz

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1. Good thinking, but....
fxe1200 03/08/2012
"We Need a Bond Between Companies and Workers" ..how can a bond be accomplished, when most industries in Germany refuse to offer jobs with a payment one can survive on? Germanys export boom and its economic boom has only made possible by the low wages being paid in Germany. And the trend goes on. France i.e. has a minimum wage of 9 Euros/h. There is no minimum wage in Germany and a vast amount of workers still work for a hourly rate of 6 Euros or even less. In 2010 1,4 million fulltime workers with families received additional social aid, as their income still was underneath the poverty line. Taxpayers money is being used to aid workers, who cannot make a living with a fulltime job, a trend that is increasing. I strongly believe that there must be a bond between companies and workers, but it cannot be done on the expense of the workers. German companies make money hand over fist, not only at the expense of their workers, but at the expense of the export abilities of other European countries as well.
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