Germany’s 2.2 million strong metals, engineering, electrical and textiles union has this week elected Christiane Benner to be the union’s president (the head of the union) at its Congress in Frankfurt. The first woman to hold the post in IG Metall Benner is now arguably the most powerful trade union leader in Europe. Asked why it took so long for woman to head the union she replies: “Ask the men”.
Previously the union’s ‘second chairwoman’ (vice president) she climbed her way to the top after joining the union in her early 20s when she was working as a foreign-language secretary at a German mechanical engineering firm.
Benner has an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree from Philipps University of Marburg and an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree from Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main and has also studied in the USA.
She won the top job at the union’s congress securing 96.4% of delegates votes – which itself marks a significant break with traditions in the union.
The core national collective agreement in the metals and engineering industries in Germany is based on ‘pattern bargaining’ with a agreement usually reached between the employers organisation in manufacturing and the union in the Baden Württemberg region, the home of many large German manufacturing companies including Mercedes Benz, Daimler, Siemens, Bosch, Samsung, BMW and many other multinational corporations which is then applied across Germany.
Previous presidents of IG Metall have almost always come from Baden Württemberg and they had previously lead collective bargaining with the German manufacturing employers body and major companies in the region.
IG Metall’s core membership is in male dominated manufacturing industries and companies including autos, aerospace, steel, mechanical and electrical engineering and their supply chains. Women make up just 20% of the union membership.
Benner’s industrial base has been in the white collar, IT and technical sections of the union.
She was touted to head up the DGB (the German equivalent of the TUC) a post she declined, and following internal wrangling at the top of the union Benner emerged as the sole candidate to lead the union.
She accepts that the union faces tough challenges including dealing with the underlying problems in the German economy and the growth of non union manufacturing plants. She told union delegates: ”The most important thing is keeping industry in Germany and Europe. We’re seeing a creeping dismantling of industry and jobs,”
To prevent a the de-industrialisation of Europe’s biggest economy Benner favour’s discounted electricity prices for industrial firms, tackling the shortage of skilled workers and foot-dragging on digitisation which act as a drag anchor on the once booming German economy.
Another problem is that more than 2.6 million young people in Germany under the age of 35 have no vocational qualifications – despite a growing demand for highly skilled workers as digital technologies and AI transforms German businesses.
She has called for an increase the number of apprenticeships and to make training and skills more attractive to young people and women with better work-life balance, a four-day 32 hours work week and a narrowing of the gender pay gap.
One of her other urgent tasks is to unionise Tesla in Germany, where Elon Musk has resisted unionisation. She publicly warned Musk: “You need to be careful. The rules of the game are different here”.
Under German legislation unions have a legal right to represent workers and bargain on their behalf where workers support unionisation.
Tesla’s Model Y vehicle is built at their Brandenburg plant where IG Metall say membership is growing and where workers have long complained about poor health and safety conditions and extreme workloads caused by staff shortages and heavy production targets.