It’s Not a Concert until Everyone Is Singing
Unions are anything but in or cool. Membership numbers have been dropping in most industrialised countries for years. So, has the collective action model had its day? Quite the opposite in fact: Our author argues that times of crisis are exactly when we need to reup on solidarity.
In autumn 2022, half a million people in Germany will probably get a little thrill when they check their bank balances. As of October 1, the wages paid in will have risen by ten percent, with another three percent increase expected a few months later. The beneficiaries are building cleaners, i.e. those who clean facades, kitchens, offices and hospitals. Good for them, most people might think. Wouldn’t that be nice, inflation being what it is. But what does that have to do with me?
Everything. Wage increases do not just fall from a clear, blue sky. No employer simply gives money away – and most certainly not willingly and voluntarily. The extra income that regularly trickles like warm rain into accounts of workers across the country is always hard won. Sometimes with persistent strikes that leave garbage lying around and cars waiting for assembly. And it is about more than just wages. Holiday pay, Christmas bonuses, shift pay, more paid leave, shorter working hours: all fought for and brought to you by unions. This year in Germany, the eight major unions united in the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB, German Trade Union Confederation) will negotiate new wages and working conditions for around ten million people.
Time for Freeloaders to Pay Their Dues
That alone should be enough to convince anyone to immediately sign up to a union. In fact, though, just under one in six employees in Germany is a union member – at last count the number was 5.7 million out of around 34 million workers making social security contributions, which is about 17 per cent. This puts Germany slightly below the European average, where the degree of unionisation varies from seven to 70 percent, depending on the EU-member state and the respective legal framework, and above the US average of around ten percent. Those who do not pay their dues are freeloaders who profit from the fact that no distinction is made in the workplace between union members and non-members. Many acknowledge that unions are important but seem to view joining one as taking things just a bit too far. In some industries, membership numbers are so low that regular wage increases are nothing but a dream.
Society seems to have done well enough so far. But given the challenges and crises we have begun to face or anticipate in the near future – inflation, climate adaptation, digital transformation, an aging population – this is the wrong approach to take. There are only two ways to deal with such crises: either the state has to take decisive action, raising the minimum wage here, lowering taxes there, offering a reduction here and a subsidy there. This is clearly unfair, as it benefits the wealthy along with the poor.
Or workers can collectively negotiate fair wages and working conditions – through the trade unions. After all, who knows the business, the profits a company is earning, the investments it is planning, the changes it is about to make, better than the people working there? And who has more of a right to help determine what the future should look like – the wages, the working conditions, the necessary cuts – than the people working there? Freeloading is no longer good enough in the face of global crises. Unions are like a choir: It’s not a concert until everyone is singing.
A Smelly, Old Jumper
Trade unions also have to position themselves better, though, especially in Germany. They need more women in their ranks, and need to get much younger, more modern and more digital. Even though hundreds of people join every day, a greater number leave or die: Trade unions in Germany are primarily huge pensioners’ organizations. Every third member of IG Metall is retired. There is a clear trend towards declining membership rates among young workers across Europe. At the same time, the average age of union members is rising steadily – and Germany is not even a frontrunner here.
If unions want to buck these trends, they will have to learn that members in the digital world read, write and consume media differently, and that they have different needs and demands. For a long time, it looked as if digitisation would ring in the final death knell for unions. No one wants to wade through lengthy pamphlets in German legalise. And when the boss wants to be on a first-name basis, when getting things done is quick and easy, the hip fizzy drinks are free and the salary is fine: Why would anyone need a workers’ council, collective bargaining, strikes and regulated working hours? It has the whiff of a smelly, old jumper.
But the bloom has gone off the rose a bit in the meantime. Workers are increasingly finding that the glitter of the digital world often hides miserable working conditions, where racism and sexism are part of everyday life, and moral claims to want a better world are nothing more than empty words. The list of companies where unions have been formed in the past five years reads like a who’s who of Silicon Valley: Apple, Google, Uber, Starbucks, Amazon. And workers are mobilising at smaller, lesser-known providers as well: At US-based game app Lovestruck (involved in romance novels), writers joined with fans to force a 78 percent wage increase and shorter working hours in 2020.
Around the world, people working in the informal sector are also increasingly organising: boda-boda drivers in Uganda. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / dpa / Dai Kurokawa
Good, Old Worker Solidarity Is Not Dead Yet
Many of those now organising are concerned with a wider range of issues beyond the classics like wages and working hours. Increasingly, they also focus on concerns such as data protection and transparency. Take the “Fairtube” project, for example, a joint campaign between IG Metall and the YouTubers Union. The latter represents video producers who publish content on YouTube. Together, they forced more transparency and co-determination, and changed algorithms – and with this a stronger influence on their income.
The conquest of the generally staunchly anti-union digital bastions is not the only innovation underway. People in need are also increasingly organising, such as in the informal sectors in many countries: Street vendors in India, textile workers in Central America, boda-boda drivers (motorbike taxies) in Uganda. Trade unions with their complex range of goals will probably never be as hip as streaming subscriptions. But the new developments and successes show that good, old, worker solidarity is not dead yet. It is chalking up wins and offering a path out of growing individual powerlessness.