Organized Labor in U.S. and Germany—Will it Survive? By Michael Mosettig     Print Email

Organized Labor in U.S. and Germany—Will it Survive?

By Michael Mosettig

To the union leaders who occupy offices inside, the big white building just north of Lafayette Square in Washington is known as The House of Labor. Encased on marble, with a view of the White House, it exudes the power that once belonged to leaders of American labor unions to help pick and elect Democratic Party presidents and push their agendas through Congress.

Even before COVID-19, unionized workers represented only 11 percent of the U.S. labor force, and a chunk of them negotiate with governments and politicians on behalf of civil servants and teachers, not with corporate executives. Union membership decline, from 20 percent of the work force in 1980, is another symbol of what has happened to labor movements through globalization and automation.

But organized U.S. labor does not stand isolated in decline. In parts of Europe, union membership and employment are dropping, and workers worry about their future in a computerized world.

And on both sides of the Atlantic, worried or angry workers, once the lynchpin of social democratic parties, are defecting to populist alternatives. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) fell to a record, post-war low 15 percent of the vote in the last European Parliament elections, only four points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD). And of course, President Trump’s 2016 election was achieved by winning key industrial states.

The Washington office of the SPD’s international arm (the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung) was co-host of a day-long conference in October 2019 to recognize that the two labor movements share problems. And even as they acknowledge answers are not readily available, the U.S. AFL-CIO and the German Trade Union Confederation (eight unions representing six million workers) stressed they needed to learn from each other.

During conference from morning into the late afternoon at the AFL-CIO headquarters, American and German union leaders and some outside experts did find some bright spots against a gray backdrop. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka cited the auto workers strike at General Motors and the new California law granting ride share drivers employee rather than contractor status as signs of new life and militancy. His German counterpart Reiner Hoffmann, president of the DGB, noted that more young Germans are opting away from university enrollment to more job-oriented worker training. (Some 26 percent of German workers are unionized, far higher than in the U.S., but still way below such countries as Sweden.)

The biggest fear running through the conference was expressed by Thorben Albrecht, a former German union official and now an International Labor Organization (ILO) Commissioner. He described visiting an Intel Corp. plant in Germany and seeing only machines but no workers on the floor. The machines, he said, seemed to be controlling everything, even air quality in the plant. But he added, workers in back rooms were programming and guiding the machines. He did note that the machine workers and the techies seemed to be eating lunch in separate places.

The dramatic months of the global Covid-19 pandemic this Spring have highlighted some differences between the two nations and their worker and social policies. More German government money has gone to protecting jobs, even when workers are furloughed, while the United States has focused on unemployment compensation benefits. As economies open up, questions arise more in the U.S, on the vulnerability of workers going back to crowded work spaces. Unlike their white-collar counterparts, employees in factories and meat plants cannot work from home or practice social distancing. And in the United States, more than Germany post-pandemic questions arise on how well and for how long will blue-collar jobs be preserved or converted to automation.

Yet even among concerns about automation, now enhanced by Artificial Intelligence, speakers unanimously rejected the concept of a workerless world. 

Dismissing “doomsday predictions,” Hoffmann said, “I don’t think that we will run out of work.”

But the approaches of German and Americans to a future based on platforms more than production revealed differences in the laws and economic and social structures of the two countries.

While both sides emphasized training and lifetime education, the Germans pushed harder on issues such as hours. German unionists also were more confident they could get in on the ground floor of corporate decision-making on AI through co-determination at large companies (union members on boards of directors) and worker councils at nearly all German enterprises.

And while one of the several 90-minute panels could not treat all training issues in depth, some of the commentary provided revealing moments that again reflected national differences. Particularly intriguing from an academic, Lee Branstetter of Carnegie Mellon and former official in the Obama Administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, was that training programs for high school or slightly older prospective workers need to emphasize math education. Some pilot programs in the Pittsburgh area already have demonstrated that math programs taught through technology can be particularly effective for minorities. But his focus was more on community colleges than on factory floor programs.

In response to questions from the German side, a United Steel Workers Union official, Anna Fendley, acknowledged that the U.S. is far behind in training on the factory floor, in contrast to Germany’s oft-cited apprentice programs.

Reiner Hoffmann issued the ultimate warning of both of what is at stake and what is possible: Germany may well lose 2.5 million jobs in the coming decade, but at the same time create 2.7 million new ones.

Behind those big numbers are a lot of human lives to be fulfilled or squandered and at least an equal count of still-to-be answered questions and issues.

Michael Mosettig is the former Foreign Editor of the PBS News Hour and an Adjunct Instructor at CSIS. He is a member of the former Board of Advisors of European Affairs.