Creation of unified service sector union suffers setback at ÖTV congress

In November 2000, the congress of Germany's Public Services, Transport and Traffic Union (ÖTV) failed to give sufficient support for the trade union's participation in the foundation of a new Unified Service Sector Union (Ver.di). About one-third of the delegates expressed criticism of the current conditions for the planned merger of five unions to create Ver.di. ÖTV will take its final decision on the issue at an extraordinary congress in March 2001, where the support of at least 80% of delegates will be required to approve the merger.

In autumn 1999, five German service sector trade unions held extraordinary congresses at which an overwhelming majority of more than 90% of delegates voted in favour of the preparation for a new merged Unified Service Sector Union (Vereinigte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, Ver.di) (DE9911225F). The unions concerned are:

  • the Public Services, Transport and Traffic Union (Gewerkschaft Öffentliche Dienste, Transport und Verkehr, ÖTV);
  • the German White-Collar Workers' Union (Deutsche Angestellten-Gewerkschaft, DAG);
  • the Postal Workers' Union (Deutsche Postgewerkschaft, DPG);
  • the Commerce, Banking and Insurance Union (Gewerkschaft Handel Banken und Versicherungen, HBV); and
  • the Media Union (IG Medien).

Following the extraordinary congresses, the unions involved founded a joint organisation (Gründingsorganisation ver.di, Go ver.di) in order to prepare for the merger, which is officially planned for spring 2001. The new service sector union would have around 3.2 million members (on current figures) representing more than 1,000 occupations.

Organisational structure of Ver.di

Go Ver.di has since worked out a draft contract on the trade union merger (Verschmelzungsvertrag, as well as a draft statute (Satzung) which determines the organisational structure of Ver.di. According to the draft statute, Ver.di will be a "matrix" organisation with a vertical and a horizontal structure (see table below). The vertical structure will follow geographical lines with a central organisation at national level and further organisations at regional, district and local level. The horizontal structure will involve 13 "sectoral areas" (Fachbereiche). Each sectoral area should also have its own suborganisation at the different geographical levels, as well as at establishment level.

In addition to the geographical and sectoral structures, there will be various structures for special groups of union members, such as young, older and unemployed members, as well as blue-collar workers, civil servants, master craftspersons, technical engineers and freelancers. There will also be a special structure for female members dealing with women's issues and problems of equal opportunity. Finally, there is the possibility to create additional working groups for further groups of members, such as migrant workers, workers with disabilities, or gay and lesbian workers

Table 1: Proposed organisational structure of the new Ver.di trade union
Sectoral areas Geographical areas Areas for special groups
1. Financial services National level Female members
2. Energy services, waste disposal Regional level Young members
3. Health services, social work, welfare services and churches District level Older members
4. Social security services Local level Blue-collar workers
5. Education, science and research . Civil servants
6. Public administration (federal level and federal state level) . Master craftspersons, technical engineers
7. Public administration (municipal level) . Freelancers
8. Art and culture, media, printing and paper industries, plus industry-related services and production . Unemployed members
9. Telecommunications . Optional working groups for other groups, such as migrant workers, workers with disabilities or gay and lesbian workers
10. Logistics and postal services . .
11. Transport . .
12. Commerce . .
13. Special services . .

Source: Own composition based on draft Ver.di statute

The concrete distribution of rights and competences between the different organisational areas of Ver.di is determined in the trade union's proposed statute. This provides that the sectoral areas will have a large degree of autonomy regarding the determination of their own internal structures, including the use of financial resources and personnel policy. The sectoral areas will be responsible for dealing with the companies and establishments within their sectors and for supporting works councils and trade union representatives within those companies.

Furthermore, the sectoral areas will also be responsible for collective bargaining in their sectors. The sectoral areas will establish their own collective bargaining committees which will autonomously draw up their bargaining demands and decide on the conclusion of collective agreements. The details are determined in a special collective bargaining directive (Tarifrichtline). In order to guarantee a common and coordinated collective bargaining policy within Ver.di, a cross-sectoral collective bargaining committee will work out some main guidelines on collective bargaining policy which should be binding for the whole union. If the conclusion of a collective agreement breaches these guidelines, the national level of the union should have a power of veto. Finally, there will be only one single strike fund for the whole Ver.di organisation, which will be administrated at national level. The national executive board will also have the final decision on strikes or industrial action.

ÖTV congress debates Ver.di

Although a majority of the members of the unions involved have supported the creation of Ver.di, there is also a significant minority who still reject the union merger. The critics of Ver.di have always been particularly strong within ÖTV, which is the largest of the five unions involved. When in autumn 1999 all the unions supported a joint framework paper which outlined the organisational structures of Ver.di, ÖTV was the only union which came forward with a catalogue of topics that it wished to renegotiate.

The criticism within ÖTV of the current proposed organisational structure of Ver.di has concentrated mainly on the relationship between the geographical and the sectoral areas. Since ÖTV has its organisational focus very much at district level, it also wants to strengthen the political importance of the geographical areas within Ver.di. Currently, ÖTV has about 160 district organisations, while it is planned that Ver.di will only have about 110. In contrast to ÖTV, some of the other unions, such as HBV, DPG or IG Medien, have an interest in strong sectoral organisations, since this would be an opportunity for them to keep parts of their organisational identity within Ver.di.

Furthermore, elements inÖTV also raised some criticism of the relatively high autonomy of the sectoral organisations, which might, they fear, run the risk of creating 13 separate unions under the umbrella of Ver.di which then would become little more than another trade union confederation or a "small" German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB). Consequently, critics within ÖTV have demanded a strengthening of the political power of the geographical organisations in order to guarantee a common policy for all sectors within Ver.di. Last but not least, much criticism has also been levelled at the planned distribution of money and resources which has been laid down in a special budget directive (Budgetierungsrichtlinie). Again, critics within ÖTV have demanded more resources for the district organisations and a better distribution between richer districts with more trade union members and poorer districts with fewer members.

Against this background, the debate on Ver.di was one of the major topics at the ÖTV congress which was held in Leipzig on 4-10 November 2000. After ÖTV was successfully able to renegotiate some details of the organisational structure of Ver.di, the ÖTV board presented a resolution to the congress in which it asked the delegates to support the creation of Ver.di on the basis of the agreed documents. The resolution was adopted with a majority of about 65% of the delegates, while about 35% voted against it. According to the statute of ÖTV, however, the union will finally need a majority of 80% of congress votes when it comes to the liquidation of ÖTV and its transition into Ver.di. Since the November vote has shown the Ver.di opponents to be in a relatively strong position, the union merger has once again seemed to become uncertain. As a result of the situation, the president of ÖTV, Herbert Mai, took the political responsibility and resigned.

The further course of the ÖTV congress showed, however, that the delegates intend to go ahead with the merger. First, a clear majority of 77% decided to hold an extraordinary congress on 16-18 March 2001 to take the final decision on the merger. Furthermore, the delegates elected, with almost 95% of the votes, Frank Bsirske as the new president of ÖTV. In his electoral address, Mr Bsirske strongly emphasised the need for Ver.di but also said that there might be some space for modifications in the negotiations with the other four unions.

Commentary

Following the current schedule for the trade union merger, Ver.di will hold its founding congress on 19-21 March 2001. Immediately before that, the five unions involved will hold extraordinary congresses in order to take the final decision on Ver.di and to conclude their own liquidation. While there seems to be a clear majority in favour of Ver.di within four unions (DAG, DPG, HBV and IG Medien), there is still a lot of scepticism and criticism within ÖTV, as expressed at the November congress. Without the support of ÖTV, whose 1.5 million members will make up half of the new organisation, there would be no merger. In the meantime, however, the preparation for the merger has achieved such a dynamic that a failure of Ver.di would be widely regarded as a significant weakening of the German trade union movement. (Thorsten Schulten, Institute for Economic and Social Research (WSI))

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