How can trade unions help their members

Unions Yes please, but without me!

The decreasing binding force of the unions goes hand in hand with recruiting problems for certain groups. While only 14.5 percent of the 18 to 30-year-olds state that they are members of a trade union, 22.5 percent of the over 50-year-olds are unionized. The aging process of the trade unions is also evident from the fact that the over 50-year-olds only make up 34.1 percent of the total workforce, but are significantly over-represented in the unions with a share of 41.5 percent. Similar to young workers, unions find it difficult to recruit new members from part-time workers and migrants. Employees who were born outside of Germany are considered migrants, while part-time employees are all employees who work less than 30 hours a week. With union membership levels of 11.5 percent (part-time) and 15.6 percent (migrants), these two groups are well below the average of 18.5 percent.

There are also clear differences in terms of gender and region. While 22 percent of men are unionized, only 14.8 percent of women say they are union members. The difference is reduced if only full-time men and women are considered (22.2 to 16.9 percent). This is due to the fact that women work part-time more often and, at the same time, part-time workers are less likely to organize themselves in unions. In addition, the tendency to organize is much more pronounced in West Germany (19.6 percent) than in East Germany (13.4 percent).

A declining degree of organization of the trade unions and recruitment problems among certain groups suggest that the trade unions are viewed by many workers as being of little importance. But far from it. Although only less than one in five is a union member, almost 70 percent of the employees surveyed in Allbus 2016 agree with the statement that employees need strong unions. A lack of appreciation for the trade union as an institution or doubts about its right to exist do not seem to be the main reasons for the dwindling social anchorage of the trade unions.

Against the background of these figures, the behavior of many employees could be viewed as a risky calculation. Strong unions seem to be needed and wanted by a large majority. However, it can only exist as long as there are enough workers who choose to join a union. Because the number of members not only determines the survivability of a union, but also determines the bargaining power in collective bargaining as well as the possibilities of political influence. The minimum level of organization required for trade unions to be able to act is theoretically open.

Different developments suggest that recruiting members will not be a sure-fire success in the future either. Recruiting members from outside could turn out to be particularly difficult against the background of a weakening SPD, as the SPD had been one of the trade unions' most important political partners for decades. It seems necessary to move closer to other parties such as the Greens. Such a coalition is particularly problematic when employment and climate policy interests clash, as is currently the case with the conflict over the Hambach Forest. A look at the results of the Hessian state elections also makes it clear that intra-union heterogeneity can also make it more difficult to retain current members in the future. Even if a relatively large number of trade unionists voted for the SPD (28 percent), other parties and thus other schools of thought are also strongly represented. Green, CDU and AfD voters make up no insignificant part of the trade unionists with 18 percent and 17 percent respectively (DGB, 2018). Despite these challenges, the relatively stable membership figures in recent years (Anders et al., 2015, 23 f.) Can be interpreted as a positive signal and the first sign that the unions are addressing their problems.