Germany: Revival of German trade unions

German trade unions have been fighting decreasing rates in density for years. Now the latest research by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research shows that net union density rose by 2.6 percentage points between 2006 and 2012 and 20.6% of employees were union members in 2012. Most of the new members are men.

Development of trade union density

At the beginning of 2015, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Köln) published its latest data on trade union density and membership development (in German). The analysis looks into net union density – that is, only active union members still in employment and excluding unemployed or retired union members. To derive data on union density in Germany, the IW analysts used the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS) which is based on between 3,000 and 3,500 standardised interviews conducted every second year. A random sample of survey participants is chosen to answer a set of standardised and variable questions. The questionnaire includes a question on union membership.

As Table 1 shows, union density decreased by 5.5 percentage points between 2000 and 2006. However, net union density rose by 2.6 percentage points between 2006 and 2012, and 20.6% of employees were union members in 2012. This increase is mostly because of the relative increase in male membership. Between 2006 and 2012 net union density among male employees rose by 3.4 percentage points, but only by 1.8 percentage points among female employees. In fact, female net union density remains consistently low.

Table 1: Net union density rates in Germany (2000–2012)

 

Total

Male

Female

Full time

Part-time

 

%

2000

23.5

28.8

16.6

25.1

14.6

2002

22.5

24.8

19.3

23.8

13.9

2004

20.6

24.2

15.9

21.5

16.2

2006

18.0

22.7

12.4

19.7

10.4

2008

19.1

21.0

16.7

20.5

13.2

2010

19.0

22.8

14.2

20.9

11.1

2012

20.6

26.1

14.2

22.5

13.1

Source: Anders, Biebeler and Lesch (2015) (in German)

The researchers conclude that the low female union density rate poses a problem for unions. In the 2012 ALLBUS survey, 68% of all union members were male, whereas only 54% of all dependent employees were male. This disproportionate number of male union members means that recruiting more women will remain a major task for unions.

Regional differences still exist

Some 25 years after the reunification of Germany, differences persist between western and eastern states. In 2012, net union density was 21.4% in western Germany but only 17.2% in the east.

While overall net union density is comparatively low in eastern Germany, differences between subgroups, such as men and women (17.2%) or full time (17.3%) and part-time employees (16.5%), are less pronounced. The situation is completely different in western Germany, where the net union density rate is significantly higher for male employees (28%) compared with women (13.4%), and for full-time employees (23.8%) compared with part-timers (12.6%).

Net union density rate and age

The IW analysts also looked into the age structure of union membership. As Table 2 shows, the proportion of all active union members aged 51 and older has increased greatly over the last two decades. From 1994 to 2000, 21% of active union members were aged 51 or older compared with 36% during 2008 to 2012. The two youngest age groups (18–30 and 31–40) represent a declining share of active union members.

Table 2: Age structure among active union members

 

1994–2000

2002–2006

2008–2012

 

%

18 to 30 years

19.0

13.0

12.7

31 to 40 years

30.1

24.4

18.5

41 to 50 years

29.9

37.3

32.8

51 years and older

21.0

25.3

36.0

Source: Anders, Biebeler and Lesch (2015)

However, the age structure looked very different for the periods 1994 to 2000 and 2002 to 2006. In both periods most union members were found among the 3140 group or the 4150 group. As these cohorts have aged and fewer younger members have been recruited, the share of active union members aged 51 years or older has risen. This situation, as seen in Table 3, is also reflected in the net union density rate for the different age groups.

Table 3: Net union density rate by age cohorts

 

1994–2000

2002–2006

2008–2012

 

%

18 to 30 years

19.4

14.8

13.8

31 to 40 years

25.3

16.9

16.8

41 to 50 years

30.4

24.4

20.0

51 years and older

26.2

23.6

24.9

Source: Anders, Biebeler and Lesch (2015)

Net union density rate by occupation and establishment size

Using the ALLBUS data, the IW researchers show that, at 35.8% for the period 2002 to 2006 and 36.1% for the years 2008 to 2012, net union density is highest among civil servants, who make up around 8% of all employees. Among white-collar workers, who represented over 60% of all employees during the years 2008 to 2012, the net union density rate, at 14.7% (20022006) and 15.8% (20082012), was comparatively low. The net union density rate for blue-collar workers dropped by nearly four percentage points between the two periods 2002–2006 (26.5%) and 2008–2012 (22.6%). The analysis concludes that if the unions hope to increase their membership they will need to concentrate mostly on white-collar workers, irrespective of skills levels.

In addition, the ALLBUS survey allows the data to be analysed by establishment size, though not for all years. Data is available for the years 1994, 2004 and 2008. As shown in Table 4, net union density rises with establishment size. For establishments with up to 199 employees, the net union density rate decreased between 1994 and 2008. The same holds true for establishments with more than 500 employees. An exception to the rule is the category of establishments with 200–499 employees. After a marked drop of more than 20 percentage points between 1994 and 2004, net union density rose again by nearly six percentage points from 2004 to 2008.

Table 4: Net union density rate by establishment size

 

1994

2004

2008

 

%

1–9 employees

15.5

8.0

7.7

10–49 employees

20.7

15.9

12.1

50–199 employees

25.9

24.1

18.1

200–499 employees

42.6

22.4

28.1

500–999 employees

42.6

36.8

24.0

1,000+ employees

39.9

29.7

34.1

Source: Anders, Biebeler, Lesch (2015)

As strong union membership and unions’ ability to influence politics are closely related, the researchers conclude that to remain influential unions will need to find new ways to recruit and organise members. The data presented in the study clearly indicate that union membership is strongest among male, full-time and older employees. However, these are the groups whose employment levels are likely to decrease in the future. Therefore, to stabilise the latest positive developments and secure their political influence, unions will need to recruit from new sectors and target groups.

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