Aachen In the morning and later in the evening, I got a short course on how unions worked in Germany from organizers, staff and leaders at Ver.di, who met with me at their regional headquarters in Dusseldorf. The television screen in their meeting complex might have been translated as if I was giving a training session, but at many times I was being schooled more than they in the basics of how unions worked and the challenges they face in Germany.
I’ve certainly heard about “works’ councils” for years and even met representatives of such councils from time to time in various delegations or when groups have visited New Orleans or so forth. The perspective from the ground floor where organizers’ work, repeatedly established that when there was a conflict between the theory of workers’ input at the council level within a firm and the reality of whether or not workers could make change or build power through a council, the theory was crushed and thrown out of the window by the crushing weight of the reality. At lunch without as many of the other folks listening, in somewhat of a silent sacrilege, two members of the key regional organizing team asked me what I might advise on how to deal with a work council when they were as much of an issue as the management.
Certainly in the USA, we can read op-eds and news stories from the corporate point of view that hold works councils as little more than a German artifice that got in the way of what company’s wanted to do. All of which, almost by default, led me to believe they were likely a good thing. Hearing from both organizers and works council members was an education. Councils are basically a meet-and-confer operation with elected leaders in the work place about non-economic terms and conditions of employment. In Germany every business of a certain size and employment is required to establish such a council. On the one hand organizers were finding them an obstacle in organizing because they were often entrenched with unaccountable leadership. In organizing they would initially begin by trying to convince the works council members that a union was a good thing and there should be cooperation and assistance, but often they would find the union had to either organize to take the council over, elect new members, or go around the council, none of which are easy tasks and all of which took time, energy and resources. Councils are elected to four year terms, so if a union is organized in a firm and comes in after the last election, if could be that many years before there’s a chance to deal with them accountably, and that’s a job hard to handle.
Talking to leaders at works councils at American Apparel retail stores and Home Depot stores, they were unhappy for other reasons. At Los Angeles-based American Apparel, they were hanging in and hanging tough despite the fact that the company was in Chapter 11 reorganization. They felt like they couldn’t get any information or analysis they needed from the company or their American manager. At Home Depot, they felt a union drive and campaign were needed, but troubled about what role they could play. Others were concerned about their powerlessness in dealing with subcontracting and joint employer situations in German law and were critical about whether the union was doing enough to get ahead of these problems either.
The Rhine-Ruhr valley is at the heartland of labor’s strength in Germany, where unions are still a key part of the economic order. Ver.di is attempting to innovate in organizing and in fact that’s part of how I got to Dusseldorf, because the leader of the newly created organizing team, Jeffrey Raffo, was interested in participating in a dialogue about how community organizing methodology melded with labor organizing technique to create a strong, amalgam of organization. Nonetheless, they all nodded that German unions were also getting weaker, even if not as weak as those in the USA, and works councils were clearly not enough to provide workers protections in the absence of strong unions.