In Germany, Trade Unions Are Waking Up To the Climate Crisis

Hans-Jürgen Urban
Nathan French

Rooted in Germany's metalworks industries, IG Metall is one of the world's strongest trade unions. But the need for climate action is forcing it to take a more critical approach to the industries where its members work — and fight for a green transition that creates new kinds of high-paid, fulfilling jobs.

An IG Metall strike. (Wikimedia Commons).

Interview by
Loren Balhorn

With its over two million members, the Industriegewerkschaft Metall (“IG Metall”) is Germany’s biggest trade union and the largest industrial union in Europe. Since its founding in 1949, it has expanded to cover a number of industries, including automotive manufacturing, printing, steel, and machine building, and today sets standards in terms of working hours, conditions, and pay levels for millions of workers.

IG Metall has won a number of major victories to improve members’ conditions in both the workplace and beyond, relying on its ability to halt production in Germany’s crucial export industries. The union engaged in a hard-fought battle for a thirty-five-hour workweek in 1984; this campaign was defeated, but it finally achieved this for its members in the metal industry in 1995. More recently, in 2018 a major strike won its members the right to opt into a twenty-eight-hour workweek for up to two years for childcare or other care responsibilities. Given IG Metall’s unparalleled ability to force companies to strike extensive compromises with their employees, it is arguably the world’s most powerful trade union.

Hans-Jürgen Urban has served on IG Metall’s executive board since 2007. He is known as a strong advocate for the union’s political independence and the need for a “socio-ecological transformation” away from fossil fuels and the capitalist mode of production. In 2019, he was reelected with the support of over 98 percent of delegates at the union’s national convention. He spoke with Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn about the German labor movement’s tasks during the coronavirus crisis, the state of class struggle in Germany today, and how industrial unions can contribute to the climate justice movement.

Loren Balhorn

At the outset of the coronavirus crisis, a lot of people on the Left said that there could be “no return to business as usual.” Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel is more popular than she has been in a very long time, and most Germans seem to be pining for a “return to normal.” Did we underestimate capitalism’s ability to adapt yet again?

Hans-Jürgen Urban

I warned relatively early on against this longing for old conditions. Since the beginning of the crisis, the message of economists and politicians has been the following: “We are trying, as quickly as possible, to return to the old, ideal world.” This was of course wrong from the start, and it remains the Left’s task to counter this ambition.

There are good reasons for this: firstly, we should not forget that the pandemic coincided with an unstable moment in capitalism, which was already on the verge of a recession. Therefore, a return to the old conditions would mean a return to social polarization, a growing low-wage sector, rising right-wing populism, and the ecological destruction that puts the very foundation of our lives in jeopardy. That said, I worry that warnings of this kind will go unheard.

Loren Balhorn

How do you assess the labor movement’s chances of fending off attacks from the employers’ side?

Hans-Jürgen Urban

The current balance of forces is not particularly favorable to a politics based on solidarity. At the onset of crisis, both capital and the state appeared paralyzed, and they were forced to take actions and precautions completely at odds with their capitalist dogmas. The state was above all what Friedrich Engels called an “ideal total capitalist”: it had to both place the capitalist economy into an artificial coma and rescue it from collapse. What followed was a historically unique emergency-driven pragmatism including an expansion of state activity, the assumption of a gigantic amount of debt, and even interventions into the capitalist property system itself — all measures that contradicted the narratives we’ve been fed for the last twenty or thirty years.

However, this emergency pragmatism was followed by a class-conscious positioning — especially by capital. Not even heavy industry and large corporations want a return to “the old normal” of a damaged, but still existent welfare state. They obviously want to use the emergency situation and crisis in order to produce a new normal, namely a deregulated and dismantled economic state. Winston Churchill’s old saying that one should “never let a good crisis go to waste” is back with a vengeance: the crisis is the coronavirus, and it provides an opportunity to finally realize the long-held desires of the ruling classes.

Simply complaining about what we could learn from our experiences in the crisis, which ideas and experiences could be converted into a new social mode, and so on, is not enough. We have to understand that without a powerful left-wing actor, there will be no progressive changes to social conditions. But that is precisely where we are lacking. There is a lack of strategic reflection on how to close the gap between positive utopian visions and the current balance of power in society. Certainly, we need positive utopian visions if we want to avoid remaining trapped in the structures of capitalism. But more than anything, we need political alliances that transform strategies and utopias into a radical reformism.

Loren Balhorn

That reminds me of Lenin’s line about the distinction between trade union consciousness and socialist consciousness. How can we reconcile the immediate demands of job security with the objective necessity of transitioning out of the fossil fuel economy?

Hans-Jürgen Urban

Well, the working class isn’t the only social subject lacking revolutionary élan at the moment — there’s little of it to be found among the intellectuals and the middle classes, either. In a situation in which millions of working people are facing existential threats to their livelihoods, fierce struggles for redistribution await us, and the future of the industrial sector in general is in question, the desire for strong social security and the defense of jobs, income, and social prospects tends to grow stronger

Left-wing strategies that underestimate subjective meaning and objective necessity of such struggles are making a big mistake. It is much more a matter of defending, in the words of Robert Castel, the “social property” of wage-dependent employees, while at the same time embedding that defense into a strategy of socio-ecological transformation. This is because the transition to a social but also ecologically sustainable economy is crucial.

Loren Balhorn

What do you mean by “defending the social property of workers”?

Hans-Jürgen Urban

Take the industrial sector of German capitalism, in which unions like IG Metall still have a strong position at the negotiating table. Here, the aim is to change the structures of value creation in such a way that they can be adapted to a new socially and ecologically sustainable economic model of growth and development. Motorized individual transport will, and indeed must, have a future: in the form of battery-powered electro-mobility or other forms of transport that do not use fossil fuels.

However, the transformation of the automotive industry can only hope for broad social acceptance if it is embedded in a broader concept of mobility. Within this concept, the dominance of the automobile will certainly not survive in its current form, but automotive mobility can retain a relevant significance. So, we need to defend existing jobs, while also changing the production process so that a transformed sector can rightfully claim its place in an ecologically sustainable mobility concept.

Loren Balhorn

Those tensions came to the fore in the economic rescue package promoted by the German government in the first months of the coronavirus crisis. The Social Democratic leadership rejected proposals for a “cash for clunkers” (“Abwrackprämie”) scheme on cars with traditional internal combustion engines, triggering a fairly public spat with IG Metall. Since then, some voices in the climate justice movement have suggested that industrial unions can’t be counted on as reliable partners.

Hans-Jürgen Urban

This conflict showed that one can’t assume that a reform alliance composed of a variety of different social actors from different segments of society will always be harmonious. It will always have internal tensions that must be overcome or else the alliance will fall apart.

The risks of an ecological transformation are distributed very differently, and this has consequences. People who are not directly affected by the crisis are more likely to neglect the social consequences of environmental policies. Meanwhile, people with jobs that are directly threatened by the crisis may be more interested in short-term job security than in the more long-term problem of environmental catastrophe. Strategies for social-ecological transformation should respond to people who harbor those fears with political solutions, rather than moral arrogance.

In the case in question, IG Metall failed to make it clear to the public what our actual demand was. We weren’t calling for a traditional cash for clunkers scheme, but rather a transitional social-ecological demand. The defense of jobs should be combined with a step toward ecological transformation. The environmental bonus we demanded was only to be paid out if the subsidized products were associated with a significant reduction in emissions. At the same time, job security and a significant financial contribution by corporations were to be the conditions of any possible deal. This arrangement was probably too complicated to be communicated in the media properly. In the future, our demands will have to be more sharply contoured in terms of ecological, employment, and distributional policies in order to avoid the impression of a cross-class corporatism in alliance with the corporations.

Nevertheless, the climate justice movement — or at least those who immediately and harshly criticized IG Metall’s demands — shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. They aren’t exactly strangers to a certain one-sidedness, either. Sometimes the ecological components of a transformation are dominant, while the social components are neglected. But ultimately, anyone who takes socio-ecological transformation seriously must give both components equal weight.

Loren Balhorn

Do you think that ecological issues are really becoming part of trade union consciousness in Germany?

Hans-Jürgen Urban

Yes, the German trade unions have made great strides in recent years when it comes to the climate crisis. My colleagues in the automotive industry are also aware that their industry will not survive without a major transformation. The difficulty is to take existing fears and risks seriously, while also developing strategies that put forward realistic paths toward transformation without unemployment, income losses, and social precaritization.

It’s not always possible to reach a consensus. Parts of the ecology movement — including those with whom we want to work closely — come from the so-called degrowth spectrum. The debates within this milieu are colorful and diverse, but there is a strand that has committed itself to a strict and sweeping rejection of all economic growth. Its merit is to point out again and again, and rightly so, that unlimited quantitative growth is not compatible with the demands of nature. However, it also exhibits blatant analytical weaknesses.

They often overlook that today’s societies are both surplus and deficit societies. We cannot just do without growth across the board, but rather must try to correct these deficits. The problem is not growth per se, but the compulsion toward growth in the interest of profit. Even more of a problem is that there is not even the slightest idea of a functioning economy that could shrink while also being fair, sustainable, and in solidarity with the other regions of the world. Not to mention the transitional strategies we would need to get there.

When actors in this debate encounter trade unionists who come from a completely different tradition, it would be nothing short of a miracle for a completely harmonious cooperation to emerge immediately. Here, a certain tolerance and mutual understanding for each other’s cultures and interests are indispensable. Of course, this must not be allowed to endanger the reform project itself. Yet the idea of the Left as a “mosaic,” which I introduced into the German debate some time ago, proposed precisely this — that such reflexive tolerance within a broad alliance is a key resource for a progressive movement critical of capitalism.

Loren Balhorn

Today’s climate justice mobilizations are largely limited to placing demands on the political elite. In this mosaic left, as you call it, do trade unions not carry a unique responsibility, in terms of their social power to exert pressure on the ruling class and radically transform the economy?

Hans-Jürgen Urban

Without an economy that has been democratized and decarbonized from the ground up, a progressive or alternative social order is hardly possible — not to mention a socialist one. For the transition to such an eco-socialist economy, an offensive and assertive workers’ and trade union movement will be indispensable.

However, the importance of economic issues and the indispensability of the trade unions do not imply that they constitute an avant-garde within the broader alliance. It was perhaps a mistake for the Left to sometimes think like this in the past. The fact that the class of wage-dependent workers is “indispensable” does not mean that they have the answers to all questions or that they can solve all problems on their own. In my opinion, the capitalist system of property and rule constitutes the core of modern societies. But the exploitation and devaluation of people — in the form of racism and sexism, for example — are not rooted exclusively in the economy. We’re talking about complex relationships of social positioning, power, and culture — and that requires the interaction of different movements with their respective competencies.

So, not every actor in a movement is equally competent regarding all questions, nor must they present comprehensive solutions for all problems. When the young people from Fridays for Future set out to address the blatant contradiction between our mode of production and living and the ecological necessities for survival, this is also of great value. The fact that they don’t immediately devise sophisticated alternative concepts, realistic plans for the transition concepts, or grasp the significance of the balance of class forces, should not overshadow the historical significance of this movement.

The task is to bundle competences, cultures, and of course power resources in such a way that as much power as possible is generated for the realization of a common project. Everyone must contribute what they can. That doesn’t mean everyone has to do everything.

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Hans-Jürgen Urban is a worker-social scientist involved in the German labor movement from an early age. He serves on the executive board of IG Metall and regularly publishes books and articles on socialist and trade union strategy.

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

Nathan French is a French Studies MA student at Humboldt University Berlin and Paris III.

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