Unions seek right to bring cases against employers contravening agreements

With a growing number of German employers reportedly contravening valid collective agreements, in January 1999 the trade unions renewed their demand for an "association-level right" for unions to take these employers to the Labour Court.

In recent years Germany has seen a continued erosion of its system of branch-level collective agreements (DE9802248F). According to figures produced by the Institute for Employment Research (Institut für Arbeitsmarkt und Berufsforschung, IAB) in 1997, 49.0% (1995: 53.4%) of all west German private sector companies, employing 65.3% (1995: 72.2%) of private sector workers, were covered by branch-level collective agreements. The equivalent figures for eastern Germany were 25.7% of private companies, employing 43.9% of workers. In addition, it is reported that a growing number of companies which legally fall under the coverage of a collective agreements, in reality do not fulfil all collectively agreed standards. Research from the Institute for Economic and Social Research (Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut, WSI) found that in 1997/8 about 15.6% of west German and 29.8% of east German companies with works councils contravened valid collective agreements. In western Germany most offences involved agreed working time arrangements while in eastern Germany the highest number of offences involved agreed basic wages and salaries, as the table below indicates.

Contravention of collective agreements, by issue, 1997/8 (% of all companies contravening agreements)
Issue Germany (total) Western Germany Eastern Germany
Working time 56.8% 62.1% 40.1%
Basic wages and salaries 39.3% 35.1% 51.0%
Additional wages and salaries 31.0% 31.4% 30.5%
Yearly bonuses 23.7% 19.6% 35.8%

Source: WSI works and staff council survey 1997/8.

Against this background, in January 1999 the German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) renewed its demand for a collective "association-level right" (Verbandsklagerecht) to bring court cases against employers which contravene valid collective agreements. Currently, only individual employees, but not the trade union as an organisation, have the right - and possibility - to take the matter to the Labour Court if an individual employer offends against a provision in a collective agreement. However, DGB argues that many employees would not take their employer to court because they are afraid of receiving detrimental treatments or even losing their jobs. Therefore, a new collective trade union right is necessary to control companies.

The Confederation of German Employers' Associations (Bundesvereinigung der deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände, BDA) has rejected the unions' demand, because it believes that the proposed "association-level right" might lead to a situation whereby the unions could go to court without any instruction or even consent by the employees concerned. Nevertheless, a new "association-level right" seems to be likely, since even the new "red-green" government has already proposed it in its coalition agreement (DE9811281F).

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