Trade union membership and density in the 1990s

After an initial boost by German unification, aggregate trade union membership in Germany fell by almost 3.5 million between 1991 and 1998. Only one of the four main trade union organisations has been able to increase membership since 1991, while union density reached a record low of 32% in 1998.

In Germany, workers' interests are represented by four large trade union organisations which regularly publish membership figures. In descending order of size these are:

  • the German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB), which consists of 12 large industrial unions organising all sectors and occupations;
  • the German Federation of Career Public Servants (Deutscher Beamtenbund, DBB), which recruits not only career public servants but also blue-collar and white-collar employees in the public sector;
  • the German White-Collar Workers' Union (Deutsche Angestellten-Gewerkschaft, DAG), which organises white-collar employees; and
  • the Christian Trade Union Federation of Germany (Christlicher Gewerkschaftsbund, CGB), which follows the long-standing tradition of Christian trade unionism and organises across all occupations and sectors.

Membership figures for these union organisations point to strong changes in unionisation in the 1990s.

Membership fluctuations since German unification

Total membership of the "big four" trade union organisations stagnated around the 9.5 million mark in the 1980s in West Germany. After German unification, West German trade unions expanded into East Germany, taking over East German trade unions and most of their members. As a consequence, total union membership rose to more than 13.7 million in 1991.

Since then, however, total membership has fallen every year, as indicated by table 1 below. From 1991 to 1998, German trade unions lost almost 3.5 million members. A large share of these losses seem to stem from eastern German workers leaving the unions because of unemployment and disillusion with the western-type unionism, but since not all unions provide separate figures for eastern and western Germany, it is hard to draw definite conclusions. Membership is also falling because unions have severe problems in recruiting younger workers and employees in the growing private service sector.

The substantial decrease of aggregate membership masks different developments in the four main union organisations:

  • the DGB unions have been most severely affected by membership problems. From 1991 to 1998, they lost almost 30% of their members. Nevertheless, DGB remains the strongest and most influential union organisation. Its largest affiliate, the metalworkers' union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IGM), is still Germany's largest trade union, with almost 2.8 million members;
  • DBB is the only organisation which has been able to increase membership in recent years, partly by organising the relatively large public sector in eastern Germany. DBB membership had almost reached 1.2 million in 1998;
  • membership figures for DAG have fallen below 500,000, which means that they are now even lower in the united Germany than they were in the 1980s in West Germany; and
  • CGB did not profit much from unification but has not shown a substantial fall in membership, which has stagnated around 300,000.
Table 1. Membership of German trade unions (millions), 1991-1998
1991 11.800 1.053 0.585 0.311 13.749
1992 11.016 1.095 0.578 0.315 13.005
1993 10.290 1.079 0.528 0.311 12.208
1994 9.768 1.089 0.521 0.306 11.685
1995 9.355 1.076 0.507 0.304 11.242
1996 8.973 1.102 0.501 0.303 10.878
1997 8.623 1.117 0.489 0.303 10.532
1998 8.311 1.184 0.480 0.303 10.278

Source: Trade unions, author's own compilation.

Trade union density at record low

In the period from 1991 to 1998, aggregate union membership fell by almost 3.5 million, whereas employment was reduced by roughly 2 million - see table 2 below. As a consequence, trade union density, which is commonly defined as union membership as a proportion of employment, has fallen to a record low. Whereas union density stood at almost 41% after German unification, it was as low as 32% in 1998.

More detailed trade union data, which are available only for 1997, show that density varies considerably between different groups of workers. Whereas more than 60% of career public servants and almost 43% of blue-collar workers belong to a trade union, only 20% of white-collar workers do so.

Table 2. Trade union density, 1991-1998
Year Total union membership (millions) No. of employees (millions) Union density (%)
1991 13.749 33.887 40.6
1992 13.005 33.320 39.0
1993 12.208 32.722 37.3
1994 11.685 32.301 36.2
1995 11.242 32.230 34.9
1996 10.878 32.188 33.8
1997 10.532 31.917 33.0
1998 10.278 31.878 32.2

Source: Trade unions, Federal Statistical Office, author's own calculation.


During the 1990s, the trade union membership gains due to German unification have been almost completely eroded. This has not only been due to falling employment, but also reflects deeper problems for unions in adapting to the structural change in the economy, in particular the growing importance of services. While unions are quite strong among men, in manufacturing industry and in the public sector, they have problems in organising women, white-collar employees, young workers, part-time workers and private service sector employees. In other words, the composition of union membership no longer mirrors the composition of the workforce in Germany.

The calculated union density of 32.2% in 1998 even understates unions' problems. This rate is inflated by including non-working members such as unemployed or retired persons in the numerator (union membership), but not in the denominator (total employment). If these members are excluded, just about one out of four employees in Germany is now a union member. Since the structural change in the economy continues, union membership and density can be expected to fall further unless unions manage to become more attractive to the individualistic employees in the growing private service sector. (Claus Schnabel, IW Köln)

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