Are unions good for the economy

In spring 2020, the number of hits on the websites of some trade unions skyrocketed. It would be too much to say that the employees there would have been happy about it, after all, the coronavirus began to bring great suffering to the country at the same time. But there were definitely some who thought that the year of the epidemic could also be the year of the unions.

The consequences of the pandemic ultimately lead to questions, problems and fears: short-time work for millions of employees, layoffs in many companies. And the unions began to fight vehemently. That the short-time work allowance was extended and increased in this way was also due to them.

Even so, it was not the year of the unions. At least not in terms of membership. At the largest German trade union, IG Metall, the numbers have remained roughly the same for years, in the Corona year 2020 they fell slightly by two percent to 2.2 million. No wonder, given that more than 100,000 jobs were lost in the industry. "We often win new members with new hires, and there actually weren't any," said IG Metall boss Jörg Hofmann on Thursday. And: "You become a member by addressing them directly, and that is more difficult in a pandemic." At the chemical union IG BCE, the third largest in Germany, the number of members shrank by two percent to a good 600,000.

Even at the second largest union, Verdi, there are no signs of a turnaround. During the collective bargaining rounds in the public service and at the post office, members were added, said Verdi boss Frank Werneke Süddeutsche Zeitung. "On the other hand, the numbers during the shutdowns in spring and winter were worse than in previous years." As to the reasons, he says: "If we cannot talk to people, then it is very difficult to convince them to join us."

Companies refuse entry - and refer to the protection against infection

Trade unions are mass organizations; they draw their strength from direct contact with employees and the mobilization of their members. As a result, they especially struggle when a virus forces people to keep their distance and isolate themselves.

Andreas Harnack is a man who can tell about it. Harnack is the regional manager of IG Bau in Baden-Württemberg. During these weeks he drives from construction site to construction site to talk to the workers about the upcoming collective bargaining round. Some companies, he says, no longer let him on the construction site. "The companies refer to the protection against infection." It only happened to him a few days ago at a building materials company.

The trade unionist is aware of his right to enter a company. "But we think carefully about which fight to fight and which not." A dispute with the company management could unsettle the workforce, Harnack fears, and in the end it could also damage the union. Together with his employees, he has devised a different approach: He has the works councils hand out questionnaires about what the employees want for the collective bargaining round, and the works councils then hand them over to the union. "But of course something is lost there," says Harnack. "You have to look people in the eyes from time to time. Only then do you know their problems, only then do you know whether they are ready for a warning strike or not."

Harnack isn't the only one who has had such experiences. IG Metall also says that some companies denied trade unionists entry - with reference to Corona. The metallers consider this argument to be an advanced one. It mostly comes from companies that are already trying to limit the influence of the trade unions. "We can also wear a mask and do a test beforehand," says a unionist. "There are no excuses." Many remember the case of the N26 digital bank. Their management tried in the summer to block the election of a works council with reference to Corona - even though the new infections were low at the time.

If the employees are in the home office, you have to reach them digitally

If unions fail to reach workers, this can become a problem for them, especially in an economic crisis. Companies then cancel contracts, restructure or cut jobs. All questions in which employees may need the support of works councils and trade unionists. What their influence can have can be seen in the truck manufacturer MAN: Its managers had announced that they would be cutting 10,000 jobs in Germany and Austria. After the employee representatives intervened, the number is much less.

The possible isolation of workers is a problem that will preoccupy the unions for a long time. The pandemic is accelerating the digitization of work; many people will stay in the home office even after it is over. But how can trade unionists keep in touch with them? You would have to email the employees or draw their attention to yourself on the company's intranet. "But many companies block our digital access," criticizes IG-BCE boss Michael Vassiliadis. Some of the companies argued with data protection, but that doesn't convince him. Vassiliadis sees a breach of the right of access protected in the Basic Law. "Employers must enable trade unions to dialogue with employees via their company e-mail addresses, company intranet and virtual notice boards," he demands.

As a model case, his union has initiated proceedings against the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas, which during the pandemic temporarily allowed most of the headquarters' employees to work from home. Adidas explains that the constitutional access rights are of course fulfilled - the release of the email addresses of all employees to the IG BCE is "from our point of view not permitted under data protection law".

Several trade unions are therefore now urging the federal government to enshrine a digital right of access in law. Vassiliadis spoke to Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD). Merkel now wants to talk to employers, it is said.

However, the unions do not fear that the pandemic will prevent labor disputes. Despite the crisis, Verdi and the Beamtenbund brought out a reasonable wage increase for the public service in the fall. They were helped by the argument that nurses and other Corona heroes should finally earn better. These also showed that you can strike in a pandemic - with a distance. That should also give courage to the construction unionist Harnack, whose collective bargaining round is about to begin - and the metal workers who are already negotiating.