Germany’s 28-Hour Workweek

Klaus Dörre

Last month German metal workers won the right to a 28-hour workweek — after going on strike to demand a better work-life balance.

Workers from nearby Mercedes Benz and General Electric production plants participate in a warning strike in demands for better pay and more flexible working conditions in Marienfelde district on January 10, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

Interview by
Loren Balhorn

German metalworkers’ union IG Metall made international headlines last month after a twenty-four-hour “warning strike” compelled employers to sign a deal with the union giving its members the right to a twenty-eight-hour workweek.

The deal — which covers 900,000 workers in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg — is seen as a landmark in European labor relations, granting workers who want to reduce their working hours the right to do so for a two-year period. It came after 15,000 workers in eighty companies downed tools as part of a campaign for a better work-life balance and also included a substantial pay raise.

But is it too good be true? Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn sat down with German labor sociologist Klaus Dörre to find out more about the strike, what the workers really gained, and what it might say about the German labor movement’s future.

Loren Balhorn

To start, maybe you could just lay out what exactly the IG Metall strike earlier this year achieved. Is it true that all 2.26 million members and 3.9 million employees in Germany’s metalworking and electronics industries now have the right to a twenty-eight-hour workweek? And if so, is there any precedent for this elsewhere in German industry?

Klaus Dörre

The wage settlement concluded between IG Metall and the employers is quite innovative. Alongside a substantial wage increase which takes full advantage of the legally defined space to negotiate profit distribution as defined by German labor law, current employees can also opt for a shortened, twenty-eight-hour full-time workweek in order to take care of an ailing family member, raise children, or simply to balance out strenuous shift work. Moreover, all workers will receive the same contractually defined bonus pay, which partially makes up for lost wages due to reduced working hours. Employees can also choose to have this bonus paid out on additional free days.

The reduction to twenty-eight hours, however, is an individual option, and workers are entitled to return to a normal position for two years. In exchange, employers can demand workweeks of over forty hours for a limited amount of time. Such a rule is unique in this form. For the first time since the 2003 failed strike for the thirty-five-hour workweek in eastern Germany, working hours have been made an issue of collective bargaining policy. It is difficult to overemphasize this development’s importance. Previously, such examples were few and far between — one exception is the semi-privatized railway system, Deutsche Bahn, where employees can choose between higher pay and two hours less of work on a week-by-week basis.

It’s also important to note that the option of reducing individual working hours is tied to important social problems, such as taking time to care of dependent family members. This accounts for a development Marx predicted in the Grundrisse: as society reaches a certain level of material prosperity, real wealth begins to be defined as the amount of free time available to individuals and society as a whole. Many of today’s highly skilled workers want more than a good wage and an interesting job. They want more “disposable time,” that is to say, more time to live their lives. This has to be a central focus of any progressive trade union politics.

Loren Balhorn

To give us a sense of IG Metall’s relative strength, could you tell us how much economic damage the strike managed to impose on their employers?

Klaus Dörre

Economic impact was not the decisive factor. Nevertheless, twenty-four-hour strikes can prove highly disruptive in workplaces producing along a just-in-time model. The Handelsblatt, for example — a business-friendly newspaper here in Germany — came to the conclusion that IG Metall’s tactics “bordered on extortion.” More important than the immediate economic impact, however, was the union’s massive membership mobilization. Roughly 1.5 million workers participated in the one-day strikes, and also unleashed a powerful dynamic for other demands. At the third-party supplier Bosch in the town of Waiblingen, temporary workers chanted “Übernehme, Übernahme!” — a play on words both demanding full-time employment as well as threatening to take over the factory.

These moments offer a brief glimpse of what could be possible. Germany is characterized by deep, widespread dissatisfaction — particularly among workers in productive industry. For them, these strikes were an opportunity to vent their frustrations. It’s important to remember that Germany has become one of the most unequal countries in the industrialized world over the last two decades. General wealth is highly unequally distributed: 0.1 percent of the population owns 17.4 percent of the country’s estimated 9.5 trillion euro in total wealth. The poorer half of the population, on the other hand, owns only 2.3 percent of that wealth. Despite rising wages in recent years, incomes remain extremely unequal. If we take market revenues as a basis, the poorer half of the population only earns 17 percent of the national income (compared to 30 percent in 1960, for example).

Nevertheless, highly trained and well-organized core workers in the export industry can maintain or even raise their real wages. Precarious workers and women in low-wage and service sectors in particular, on the other hand, have faced disproportionate losses. Roughly half of wage-earners earned less in 2015 than fifteen years ago in real wages. Additionally, rents are on the rise in the major cities, while costs for childcare and education are increasing. Even halfway well-paid workers don’t have enough to lead the kind of family life they aspire to.

In this sense, there are plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied — working hours included. The volume of paid working hours in 2016 still remained below that of 1991. While a worker in 1991 worked an average of 1,554 hours per year, by 2014 it was only 1,366 hours — a reduction of 12 percent, coupled with starkly polarized working hours. Highly trained workers often face work weeks of fifty, sixty, or even seventy hours, for which no overtime is paid in most cases. Precarious workers, on the other hand — primarily women — work an average of twelve hours a week, although most would prefer to work more and longer. If we were to also take the desired working hours of the unemployed into account, unemployment in Germany would be at least twice as high as official statistics claim. The “German job miracle” is based largely on the fact that unemployment has been erased by expanding insecure, poorly paid labor relations. That IG Metall managed to turn working hours into a collective-bargaining issue despite these diverging needs and interests cannot be praised enough.

Loren Balhorn

Tell us a little bit more about IG Metall. What industries does it represent? How well organized is it? Does it represent the norm for German trade unionism, or rather the exception?

Klaus Dörre

IG Metall most certainly remains the strongest trade union in Germany and Europe as a whole. Its strongholds are located in Germany’s industrial heartland: the high-value automobile industry, the end producers, the major third-party suppliers and machine-building. Here, the trade unions participate in and benefit from the strength of the German industrial model, which intensifies economic imbalances in Europe and the global economy at the same time.

Representing 30.5 percent of gross value production in the EU, Germany is the continent’s most important industrial nation by far. While industry’s proportion of gross value production has gone down in all other EU member states since the turn of the millennium, in Germany it has actually slightly increased. Together with Austria, Germany is also the only European country in which industrial employment has actually risen by roughly 6 percent since 2008. The core of the industrial sector is made up of machine-building and the automobile industry. Both industries are characterized by their high share of exports, representing 62 percent and 64 percent of total goods produced, respectively.

The industrial sector is stabilized to a significant extent by the fact that the export industries are well-attuned to meet growing demand from Asia, and China in particular. German products are both required for industrial catchup as well as eagerly bought up by the rapidly growing middle class. This has allowed industrial production in Germany to increase, despite remaining a high-wage country. 40 percent of industrial workers are employed in technology-intensive sectors, which also represent the most important motors of economic growth. It is also striking that the trend towards outsourcing production has gone down noticeably, despite comparatively high labor costs (nearly 37€/hour on average, compared to 10€ in the Czech Republic and 6.65€ in Poland). While 15 percent of companies registered outsourcing in 2006, by 2010–2011 this figure had dropped to 11 percent (compared to 25 percent from the mid-1990s into the early 2000s). In 2003, 87 percent of companies engaging in outsourcing indicated low wage costs as the primary motivating factor. By 2012, this number had receded to 71 percent. In total, the wage costs as a portion of industry’s total costs continues to decline. Including costs for temporary workers, the figure lies well below 20 percent.

The relative stability and export strength of the industrial sector means that co-determination and organized labor relations in the sectors IG Metall represents are comparatively stable. While workers in other sectors were forced to take disproportionate losses, industrial export industry managed to maintain or even raise effective wages. Comparatively strong unions and works councils played a significant role here. The fact is that the industrial sector and its core — machine-building and the automobile industry — remain the center of gravity of organized labor relations. To illustrate this, you only have to look at the fact that roughly one-fifth of all IG Metall members are located in one enterprise: Volkswagen. Germany on the whole, however, has also witnessed a dramatic decline in levels of trade unions’ organizational power. The trade union organization rate stands at 18 percent. In the year 2000, 60 percent of employees in the western states and 39 percent in the eastern states were paid according to industry-wide collective bargaining rates. By 2014, industry-wide agreements only applied to 47 percent of western and 28 percent of eastern German workers.

It is for this reason that the unions’ interest politics increasingly take place in two separate worlds. Organizations like IG Metall are capable of acting largely in what I call the “first world” of regulated collective bargaining, in which industry-specific agreements still represent the norm. Beyond that — that is to say, in the “second world” of largely deregulated work — unions are forced to fight tooth and nail from workplace to workplace. The border regime between these two worlds triggers countless smaller conflicts around company and workplace contracts which adhere to their own internal logics. Only the most dramatic of these conflicts make it into the newspapers, and thus rarely appear in strike statistics.

According to available figures, contract battles leading to strikes have tripled over the course of several years, going from 82 in 2007 to 214 in 2014. Over half of these conflicts take place in the service sector and involve relatively small numbers of strike participants, although a fraction take place in the core industrial sector. This could also be seen in the most recent pay dispute. IG Metall is capable of leading disputes and strikes in the “first world” of regulated collective bargaining, but the union’s organizational domain also encompasses a “second world” characterized by insecure employment, low wages, and meager organizational power. This is especially the case in the country’s eastern states, where hourly wages for flexible employees had dropped below 6€ in some places prior to the introduction of the federal minimum wage in 2015.

In light of declining unemployment levels and skilled labor shortages, younger workers in particular are no longer willing to accept the status quo. The disciplining power of the precariat is also on the decline. Wage sacrifices in return for job security are no longer accepted automatically, particularly in the east. IG Metall’s twenty-four-hour strikes showed how widespread dissatisfaction can be translated into conflict-oriented strategies and, in this way, win victories.

Loren Balhorn

If I’ve got my recent German labor history correct, IG Metall also struck for a thirty-five-hour workweek in the 1980s. What is different today that made them feel confident aiming for twenty-eight hours? Doesn’t that go against common sense in times of austerity and corporate cost-cutting?

Klaus Dörre

The fight for the thirty-five-hour workweek in the West German printing, metalworking, and electronics industries was viewed by sympathetic observers across Europe as setting the standard for a new era. Pivotal here was also the demand’s symbolic value — for the first time in history, it seemed possible to modify the old labor movement slogan of “eight hours’ labor, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest” in favor of increased labor-free time. Despite the rise of the recreational industry and commercialized mass culture – what Marx described as the “realm of necessity” in Capital — was obviously in retreat. German labor sociologist Claus Offe, for example, argued at the time that formal wage-labor had lost its “subjective quality as the organizing center of life activity, social external- and self-assessments, and moral orientations,” concluding that the conflict between capital and labor could no longer function as the center of relations of domination in developed societies.

In the context of this anti-productivist turn, conflicts around working hours appeared as an intellectual link between trade union struggles and the themes of the new social movements, which had begun addressing the crisis of social reproduction. During this phase, reduced working hours were viewed as an open door into the “realm of freedom”, a first step towards what André Gorz called the “path to paradise.” From a feminist perspective, the struggle also offered the chance of abolishing a cultural model and with it a time regime in which the male breadwinner household had simultaneously reproduced an emptiness of private life, social devaluation of care work, and the partial exclusion of many women from the public sphere. Unfortunately, these hopes were not fulfilled. The reduction of the working week instead became a whip to drive forward flexibilization and rationalization. It is for this reason that demands for a collective reduction in working hours, such as a twenty-eight-hour workweek for all, cannot really be achieved at this time.

Loren Balhorn

From a socialist perspective, shortening the workweek like this also opens up opportunities for workers to better allocate their time for reproductive labor in the home and elsewhere. One could almost argue it represents a social-reproduction feminist demand. To what extent, if any, do explicit ideas around social reproduction influence the union and its membership?

Klaus Dörre

There have been some pretty harsh feminist criticisms of the collective-bargaining agreement, which in my view are only partially justified. It is true that Germany’s export successes are based, at least in part, on a systematic depreciation of care work, nursing, education, and other related occupations. This situation cannot be remedied by the most recent agreement alone, and certainly must become a central field of working-hours policies in the future. What the feminist critique misses, however, is how important it is to make working hours a central topic in collective bargaining. It also ignores another major problem: the total failure of the academic left.

For the time being, there are hardly any noteworthy public audiences interested in working-hours politics — which of course must always also be (intersectional, inclusive, and democratic) class politics. The collective bargaining fight for reduced full-time working hours only left a marginal impression on both academia as well as the academic left in Germany. In order to overcome the kinds of middle-class prejudices which denounce these strikes as the actions of privileged labor aristocrats and old white men, we will have to engage in tedious, long-term political and theoretical work. We have to make it clear to people that anti-racist and anti-sexist movements’ biggest victories always came about at times when democratic class struggle in the interests of waged workers were at least somewhat successful. This is just, if not even more so, the case for the central issue of reducing working hours.

Loren Balhorn

Now that IG Metall has pushed through what appears to be a major victory, what impacts will this have on the rest of organized labor and the German working class in general? Are similar demands on the horizon for other sectors?

Klaus Dörre

We’ll see. The agreement has definitely gotten a lot of attention in other trade unions. This poses a challenge for the Left, however: for example, it is utterly unclear if the wage agreement and discussions around the thirty-five-hour workweek will also be applied in the eastern German metalworking and electronics industries. Employers have indicated that they don’t want to. For future working-hours reductions, it’s important that works councils be granted co-determination rights in personnel allocation, otherwise it may just lead to labor intensification. There is an interesting wage agreement signed by the service-industry union Ver.di which took care of this in an exemplary way. What is ultimately decisive, however, is that in light of digitalization and ongoing economic imbalances in the eurozone, a politics of working-hours reductions must continue. In the medium term, we need a radical collective reduction of working hours to thirty-two, thirty, or even twenty-eight hours per week. To do this, we need concepts that can ground the German left’s currently somewhat abstract debate about “inclusive class politics” and make it concrete.

Loren Balhorn

Recently, your academic research has focused on the growth of right-wing populism among some sections of the German working class. Do these kinds of actions help to cut against that trend?

Klaus Dörre

I certainly hope so! Current developments are definitely dangerous. As we’ve already seen in other countries, ethno-nationalism enjoys above-average levels of support among German workers, union members, and the unemployed. The nationalist populists of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) entered the parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote last year, but received 19 percent of workers’ votes and 15 percent of union members. A similar picture emerges if we look at explicit party preference as opposed to tactical voting. Compared to all other parties, the AfD exhibits the broadest spread of incomes among its supporters, but also counts the highest portion of workers as well as low-skill, white-collar employees.

We have known that significant potential for misanthropic, right-populist attitudes exists in German society for quite some time, nor are inclinations toward such orientations among unionized workers a new phenomenon. Studies proving the spread of far-right or right-populist attitudes in the trade unions had already provoked controversial debates in Germany around the turn of the millennium. Ever since, the general approach was to claim that far-right positions face decisive opposition among active trade unionists and could be effectively countered with increased democratic participation. One irritating finding of our most recent study, however, suggests that this certainty is no longer true. Trade unionists responsible for raising the organizational level in their workplace are sometimes the same ones who organize the buses to take people to right-wing demonstrations held by groups like Pegida.

In terms of their subjective self-understanding, we are dealing with mutually complementary facets of a democratic revolt — manifested through the trade union in the workplace and the company, and through Pegida and the AfD in society as a whole. To give you an example from our study: when asked if Pegida represented a movement for democracy, one sympathizing shop steward replied, “I think so. Theoretically, Pegida could appeal to anyone. The shadow of Nazism might hang over the movement, but they bring up issues that affect every normal working person.”

To counter these kinds of attitudes, we need a politics that clearly articulates that trade unions do not belong to the establishment. The twenty-four-hour strikes for reduced working hours gave us a glimpse of such a politics, but momentary flashes won’t be enough. The unions, IG Metall included, have to learn to behave more like social movements once again. We are still quite a way off from that. The German unions were one of the loudest voices urging the Social Democratic Party to join a new grand coalition with Angela Merkel. This approach is fatal, as it could lead to a situation in which Social Democracy disappears as a political factor for the sake of immediate, short-lived victories. Die Linke can’t compensate for this loss for the time being, and the far right is exploiting the situation to occupy the social question from the right — an extremely dangerous situation. German society is now facing, once again, a looming national-social threat. So far, the willingness to confront this threat in the trade union movement remains underdeveloped.

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Klaus Dörre is professor of labor, industrial, and economic sociology at the University of Jena and the co-author of Capitalism, Sociology, Critique (Verso, 2015).

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and co-editor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

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