A wave of trade union mergers

October 1997 saw a wave of trade union mergers in Germany, reducing the number of affiliates of the DGB confederation from 15 to 11 unions. The mining, leather and chemicals workers' unions have founded a new joint union, while the textiles and clothing workers' union and the union for workers in wood and plastics have decided to integrate themselves into the metalworkers' union, IG Metall. Furthermore, six unions in the service sector have signed a joint declaration pointing out the need for further restructuring among union organisations, which may finally lead to further mergers.

In October 1997, six German trade unions took the decision to merge with one another, reducing the number of affiliates of the German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) from 15 to 11 unions. There were two large merger blocks, centred around the two major industrial unions - the chemicals workers' union, IG Chemie, and the metalworkers' union, IG Metall. Furthermore, six unions in the service sector declared that they would intensify their cooperation and start discussions on further restructuring of trade union organisations.

New union for the mining, chemicals and energy sectors

On 6-10 October 1997 the new Mining, Chemicals and Energy Union (Industriegewerkschaft Bergbau, Chemie, Energie, IG BCE) held its constitutional congress. The new union results from a merger of the miners' union, IG Bergbau und Energie, the chemical workers' union, IG Chemie-Papier-Keramik, and the leather workers' union, Gewerkschaft Leder. In 1992, the three unions had signed a cooperation agreement, which was followed by a five-year period of cooperation leading to the constitution of IG BCE.

The IG BCE has nearly 1.1 million members and will be the third largest union within the DGB. The former president of IG Chemie, Hubertus Schmoldt, has been elected as the president of the new union, winning 95.6% of the vote.

Textiles/clothing and wood/plastics unions join IG Metall

At its final congress on 1 October 1997, the union for the textiles and clothing industry, Gewerkschaft Textil-Bekleidung (GTB), agreed its self-liquidation and decided to join IG Metall from 30 June 1998. The German textiles and clothing industry has been particularly affected by structural changes in the economy and by the effects of growing internationalisation. Between 1970 and 1996 the number of people employed in the west German textiles and clothing industry decreased from 881,000 to 210,000. In eastern Germany, there are now only 24,000 jobs in comparison with more than 300,000 before unification. As a result, since 1991, there GTB's membership has decreased sharply by 43% to 200,000 members, causing many organisational and financial problems. GTB has declared that within IG Metall it will continue with a specific collective bargaining policy for the textiles and clothing sector. A former GTB official will have a seat on IG Metall's executive board.

On 4-8 October 1997 the union for the wood and plastic industries, Gewerkschaft Holz und Kunststoff (GHK), held its congress and took the final decision to become integrated into IG Metall by the end of 1999. IG Metall and GHK signed a cooperation agreement in November 1996, which has now been formally adopted. Within IG Metall, the small GHK - which has also been affected by a sharp decrease in membership during the last few years - hopes to safeguard its ability to maintain an effective interest representation for employees in the wood and plastics industries.

Finally, IG Metall itself agreed to the mergers with GTB and GHK at an extraordinary congress on 11-12 October 1997. After the merger, IG Metall will have again more than 3 million members and will represent more than one-third of the total DGB trade union membership.

One big union for the service sector?

Besides the trade union mergers in the industrial sectors, talks on further restructuring in German trade union organisation have also taken place in the service sector. On 4 October 1997, the presidents of six service sector unions signed the so-called "Declaration of Hamburg" (Hamburger Erklärung) in which they expressed their common view that, in the interests of their members, further organisational changes are necessary. The unions involved are: the Public Services, Transport and Traffic Union (Gewerkschaft Öffentliche Dienste, Transport und Verkehr, ÖTV); the Media Union (IG Medien); the Trading, Banking and Insurance Union (Gewerkschaft Handel Banken und Versicherungen, HBV); the Post Workers' Union (Deutsche Postgewerkschaft, DPG); the Teachers' and Science Union (Gewerkschaft Erziehung Wissenschaft, GEW); and the German White-Collar Workers' Union (Deutsche Angestellten-Gewerkschaft, DAG). According to the declaration, a restructuring of union organisations in the service sector should:

  • lead to a better organisation and representation of employees' interests;
  • lead to more possibilities and rights for the members to participate in union policy;
  • provide better opportunities to organise in non-unionised areas;
  • avoid competition between the unions in the same branches and try to create a unity of interest representation;
  • improve personnel and cost structures;
  • lead to greater efficiency and competence; and
  • strength the political power of the unions.

Based on this document, the unions have declared that they will work out concrete proposals for restructuring by the end of 1997. In May 1998, at the latest, the unions want to take decisions on the further development of union organisation in the service sector. The president of the DAG, Ronald Issen, stated that he could imagine that in the end there will be only one big union for private and public services. The white-collar DAG is the only major union in Germany which is not a member of the DGB, since its separation in 1948. Now the DAG seems to be ready to rejoin the DGB through a merger with other service sector unions.

As a first step to closer trade union cooperation in the service sector, IG Medien, DPG and HBV announced in October 1996 that they would create a "trade union cooperative" (Gewerkschaftsverbund). In May 1997, the three unions presented a first draft for a cooperation agreement which will be finally concluded in November 1997. The new trade union cooperative is seen as a strategic answer to the changing economic structures in the service sector, which are increasingly breaking down the old sectoral demarcations. As a concrete project, for example, the three unions have opened a joint "Cooperation Office Multi-Media and Work Environment" (Kooperationsbüro Multimedia und Arbeitswelt) which will bring together the unions' specific know-how on information technologies (HBV), telecommunications (DPG) and media (IG Medien) in order to cooperate in the new multi-media sector and avoid trade union competition. Furthermore, it is planned that the three unions will have a joint executive board and various joint projects and working groups. Finally, the unions will try out the common use of offices at regional and local level and will bring together their training facilities. The unions have stated that the trade union cooperative will eventually lead to a more fundamental restructuring of the organisations.

What is behind the trade union mergers?

The main reasons for the recent wave of trade union mergers seem to be two-fold. The first reason has to do with the sharp decrease in trade union membership. Since 1991, when the DGB unions saw their highest membership as result of the German unification, they have between them lost nearly 2.8 million members, or 24% of total membership - see the table below. The decrease has been particularly acute in some of the smaller unions like GTB, GHK or Gewerkschaft Leder, which became the first candidates for mergers because of their growing organisational and financial problems. The reasons behind the drastic fall in trade union membership are the sharp increase in unemployment (particularly in eastern Germany) and the unions' problems in organising specific employment groups (for instance, younger or female workers, white-collar workers in high-technology sectors and low-paid workers in private services).

Membership of German DGB affiliated trade unions, 1991-6
1991 1996 Change 1991-6
Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB) 11,800,413 9,006,755 - 24%
IG Metall 3,624,380 2,752,226 - 24%
Gewerkschaft Textil-Bekleidung (GTB) 348,095 200,075 - 43%
Gewerkschaft Holz und Kunststoff (GHK) 239,472 160,785 - 33%
IG Metall (after mergers) - 3,113,086 -
Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, Transport, Verkehr (ÖTV) 2,138,317 1,712,149 - 20%
IG Chemie-Papier-Keramik (IGCPK) 876,674 694,897 - 21%
IG Bergbau und Energie (IG BE) 506,640 364,331 - 28%
Gewerkschaft Leder 41,718 21,904 - 47%
IG Bergbau, Chemie, Energie (IG BCE) - 1,081,132 -
IG Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt* 911,761 693,866 - 24%
Deutsche Postgewerkschaft (DPG) 611,969 513,322 - 16%
Gewerkschaft Handel, Banken Versicherungen (HBV) 737,075 505,405 - 31%
Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner Deutschlands (GdED) 527,478 383,942 - 27%
Gewerkschaft Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten (NGG) 431,211 310,891 - 28%
Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW) 359,852 296,232 - 18%
Gewerkschaft der Polizei (GdP) 200,997 199,421 - 1%
IG Medien 244,774 197,309 - 19%

* Merger of IG Bau-Steine-Erden ( IG BSE ) and Gewerkschaft Gartenbau-, Land- und Forstwirtschaft ( GGLF ) at the beginning of 1996.

Source: DGB

The second reason for the trade union mergers lies in the ongoing structural changes in the economy, which break down the traditional sectoral demarcations and thereby bring into question the old principle of industrial trade unionism. Since companies have started to restructure their entire "value chain", including several forms of "outsourcing" and "insourcing" strategies, the post-war German trade union concept of having only one union per company can no longer persist. If the unions do not want to weaken themselves in competing for members, they are forced to have a much closer cooperation.


The recent wave of trade union mergers in Germany is just the beginning of a far-reaching restructuring process which change the traditional system of industrial unionism to a system of general unionism. According to the reorganisation plans of the unions, there will be only between four and six unions left in a few years' time. At the core, there will be IG BCE and IG Metall as the two major unions in the industrial sector and one or maybe two unions for public and private services.

However, the trade union mergers are more a defensive reaction of the unions to a drastic fall in membership and the fundamental changes in the economy. In concentrating their resources and creating "synergy effects", the unions hope to gain a new strength. On the other hand, as many union leaders have said in recent times, "bigness is no guarantee of success". Therefore, the more general unions which have now been established still have to prove that they are able to give sophisticated support to an even more differentiated membership. Finally, the union mergers raise the question on the future of the DGB union confederation which, in an environment of just a few large and strong unions, certainly needs to redefine its role. (Thorsten Schulten, Institute for Economics and Social Science (WSI))

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