Decline in trade union membership lowest in recent years

According to the latest figures from the Confederation of German Trade Unions, the membership levels of its affiliated trade unions dropped by 1.1% in 2008. This is the lowest decrease since 1992–1993. The German Metalworkers’ Union reported no decline and the German Union of Education even managed to increase its membership by 1.2% compared with 2007. The overall share of young trade union members increased slightly, from 7.2% in 2007 to 7.4% in 2008.

Many trade unions report slowdown in membership decline

While trade union membership has continued to decline since the beginning of the 1990s, there has been a notable slowdown of the development in recent years. The latest figures issued by the Confederation of German Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) show that in 2008 the decline in membership of DGB-affiliated trade unions was at its lowest since 1992–1993. Membership decreased by 69,570 people or 1.1% in 2008 compared with 2007, standing at 6,441,045 members on 31 December 2008.

As indicated in Table 1 below, the largest DGB-affiliated trade union, the German Metalworkers’ Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall), which records 2.3 million members, managed to bring its membership decline almost to a halt. Its membership decreased by 0.2% compared with 2007. In a year characterised by an initial economic upswing and employment gains in the metalworking sector, a range of attempts to broaden the active base membership proved successful (DE0703019I). The number of young members, defined as those aged 27 years or under, increased by 12,109 persons or 0.5 percentage points to stand at 9.3% of total union membership (Table 2).

The United Services Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di), the second largest trade union in Germany, with 2,180,229 members, reduced its decline in membership to 1.1% in 2008, compared with 3.1% in 2007. The level of decline would have been stronger if ver.di had not gained an additional 3,046 young members, which raised the proportion of this group to 5% of total membership.

The German Union of Education (Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, GEW), which covers nursery-school teachers, primary and secondary schoolteachers and university staff, even managed to increase its membership by 1.2% compared with 2007. In 2007, the organisation had already managed to almost stop its membership decline, recording a decrease of only 0.3%. The trade union attributes membership gains to recruitment strategies specifically targeting young people – namely students and young teachers – as well as older members, who are encouraged not to give up their membership at the prospect of retirement. GEW succeeded in increasing the number of young members aged 27 years or under by 0.6 percentage points in 2008.

The German Police Union (Gewerkschaft der Polizei, GdP) also managed to almost stop its membership decline (at only 0.3%) compared with 2007. The trade union holds the highest proportion of young members aged up to 27 years (11.1%) in comparison with all of the other trade unions.

The Trade Union of Food, Beverages, Tobacco, Hotel and Catering and Allied Workers (Gewerkschaft Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten, NGG), which reported a membership decline of 2,152 persons or 1% in 2008, managed to increase the number of young members by 3,532 persons or 1.8 percentage points.

Decreasing membership still a problem for some unions

Overall, two out of eight trade unions faced a substantial fall in membership levels. The decline remained strong in the Trade Union for Building, Forestry, Agriculture and the Environment (Industriegewerkschaft Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt, IG BAU), amounting to a decrease of 4.4%, yet was significantly lower than in the previous year. Compared with all of the other DGB-affiliated trade unions, the railway transport union Transnet reported a stronger fall-off in membership (4.9%) than in 2007 (3.8%). This decline followed a complicated bargaining round in 2007–2008 with the German railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) (DE0804049I), involving an intense conflict between Transnet and the German Engine Drivers’ Union’ (Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer, GDL), which is not affiliated to DGB but to the German Civil Service Association (Deutscher Beamtenbund und Tarifunion, dbb). Transnet then faced internal turmoil when its Chair, Norbert Hansen, resigned from his post shortly after the bargaining round in May 2008 – only to move to the DB board of directors where he became labour director.

Table 1: DGB membership, by affiliated trade unions and gender, 2007–2008
Trade union Total no. of members Overall change 2007–2008 (%) Overall change 2006–2007 (%) Women as % of total 2008 Women as % of total 2007
IG Metall 2,300,563 -0.2% -1.1% 17.7% 17.9%
Ver.di 2,180,229 -1.1% -3.1% 49.9% 49.8%
Mining, Chemicals and Energy Industrial Union (Industrie- gewerkschaft Bergbau, Chemie, Energie, IG BCE) 713,253 -1.7% -2.1% 19.3% 19.2%
IG BAU 351,723 -4.4% -4.6% 18.5% 17.3%
Transnet 227,690 -4.9% -3.8% 21.4% 21.2%
GEW 248,793 1.2% -0.3% 69.6% 69.1%
NGG 205,795 -1.0% -1.7% 39.8% 39.8%
GdP 167,923 -0.3% -1.4% 21.5% 21.4%
Total DGB membership 6,371,475 -1.1% -2.2% 32% 31.9%

Source: DGB, 2009

Targeting young workers

A special concern of trade unions is the organising and recruitment of young workers. The overall share of young members among DGB-affiliated trade unions increased slightly from 7.2% to 7.4% of all members (Table 2). IG Metall managed to increase its share of young members, as did most notably NGG where the share of young workers increased from 7.8% in 2007 to almost 10% in 2008. Transnet has traditionally had a comparatively old membership as most pensioners retain their membership after retirement. The low share of young members in GEW is largely explained by the fact that there are very few apprentices in the industries covered by this trade union and that many members join as teachers following a relatively long university education. The low share of young members is a particular concern of ver.di, which organises workers mainly in the private and public services sectors. GdP has the largest share of young members, as many employees tend to join the union soon after entering the police service.

Table 2: DGB membership among young people, by union and gender, 2008
Trade union Young men 2008 Young women 2008 Total young members 2008 Young members as % of total membership 2008 Young members as % of total membership 2007
IG Metall 184,954 28,937 213,891 9.3% 8.8%
ver.di 56,102 53,283 109,385 5.0% 4.8%
IG BCE 46,633 10,662 57,295 8.2% 9.6%
IG BAU 29,765 3,185 32,950 9.8% 10.0%
Transnet 7,192 2,419 9,611 4.2% 4.2%
GEW 1,802 9,213 11,015 4.4% 3.8%
NGG n.a. n.a. 19,782 9.6% 7.8%
GdP 11,768 6,818 18,586 11.1% 10.9%
Total DGB 357,998 114,517 472,515 7.4% 7.2%

Source: DGB, 2009


The 2008 figures do not signal a prospective halt to the decline in trade union membership, but verify the trend of a further slowing down of membership losses. Recruitment and organising strategies by the trade unions seem to be paying off. This, in particular, is shown by the proportional and absolute increase in young members in some unions. However, the figures must also be viewed in the context of an economic upswing and employment growth which, up until the autumn of 2008, strengthened trade union wage policy and positively affected membership development. In the case of ver.di, GEW and GdP, membership development was positively influenced by the bargaining round on pay and working time for federal and municipal employees in the public services sector, which resulted in thousands of employees getting involved in industrial action (DE0804029I). It remains to be seen how the current financial and economic crisis will affect trade union membership.

Birgit Kraemer, Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI)

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