Germany: Mixed reaction to proposed changes to rules on ‘collective bargaining unity’

A draft law has been agreed in Germany to re-establish the principle that only one collective agreement should apply to the same group of workers in the same organisation.

The draft was agreed on 11 December 2014.

It specifies that if more than one trade union concludes a collective agreement covering the same group of workers, only the agreement of the trade union which has the relative majority of members should be applicable. It is then left to the labour courts to decide whether a strike for a collective agreement which might not be applicable because the union in question is in the minority is considered to be legal.

The bill is now in the parliamentary process and planned to be passed in the spring of 2015.

While the German Confederation of Employers’ Associations (BDA) welcomed the bill, the reaction of the German trade union movement was mixed.

Occupational unions such as the German Engine Drivers’ Union (GDL), the medical doctors’ union, Marburger Bund (MB) and the pilots’ union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) condemned the bill as an attack on their freedom of association and the right to strike. The unions have pledged to challenge the legislation before the Federal Constitutional Court if it is be passed by the German parliament.

The affiliates of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), while stressing that bargaining unity between different unions remains one of their core principles, are divided on whether the law nevertheless is an attack on the right to strike or not.

The German Metalworkers’ Union, IG Metall, welcomed the legislation as a step in the right direction. A positive statement was also issued by the Mining, Chemicals and Energy Industrial Union, IGBCE. The construction workers’ union, IG BAU, and the Railway and Transport Union, EVG, welcomed the draft though they had some reservations. The second largest DGB affiliate, the United Services Union, however, openly rejected the bill on the grounds that it would at least indirectly damage the right to strike of the minority union. This position is supported by the German Union of Education, GEW, and the Trade Union of Food, Beverages, Tobacco, Hotel and Catering and Allied Workers, NGG.

Since the mid-2000s a number of occupational unions, including GDL and MB, moved away from their bargaining associations with the DGB-affiliated unions concerned and decided to conclude separate collective agreements for their members. As a result, their bargaining territories overlapped with those of their DGB-affiliates. This triggered a number of legal questions.

Collective bargaining was until 2010 determined by the principle that different wage agreements should not exist at the establishment level. Only one agreement, the most specific and relevant agreement in a particular case, was to be applied to employees in a single company.

However, in June 2010, Germany’s Federal Labour Court ruled that different collective agreements could exist in one company. The decision provoked in 2010 a joint initiative by BDA and DGB calling for a law to re-establish the principle of one company.

While DGB eventually stepped away from this initiative in 2011 due to substantial opposition within the ranks of ver.di, the employers maintained their pressure. They succeeded, in autumn 2013, in having the issue included in the program of the grand coalition government of Christian and Social Democrats.

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