Scaling up organising for sectoral collective bargaining: lessons from Germany

Thursday 1 April 2021

When negotiations in the cleaning sector ground to a deadlock in 2018, IG BAU doubled down on building power at the base. The choice of adopting a sectoral organising strategy from the very beginning paid off last year when they won a major pay increase for over 700,000 cleaners.

Ulrike Laux and Zeynep Bicici of IG BAU provided detailed insight into their work at a recent meeting of the EPOC network. We take a look at some key takeaways from that experience.

Strategic targeting

The cleaning sector is characterized by a large number of small and medium-sized companies, but also by a number of larger companies. These larger companies account for just over half of the sector’s turnover and are all members of the employers’ organisation.

Given the limited resources available, the choice was made to target the larger companies. By building organising power within companies that held key influence within the employers’ organisation, they could leverage pressure on negotiations at the sector level.

Empowering workers

At the beginning of the campaign, a national sectoral plan was put together. The entire cleaning team were involved to maximise worker participation in every step of sectoral collective bargaining, giving the workers ownership of the process. Through the escalation of visible actions, a critical number of workers in all strategic companies were mobilised to show their strength and determination in standing behind their demands.

Key to the campaign’s success was the combination of ground activity, escalating collective actions and worker-led protests. The effective use of media and social media, in which workers were the main spokespersons, played a critical role.

As is common across Europe, most cleaners in Germany are women and many have migrant backgrounds. IG BAU undertook specific efforts to provide an inclusive space for them and address their needs. That included the provision of language classes, which helped with worker self-confidence and provided a first experience as part of the union.

The training didn’t stop there and the union had a longer term approach of providing key worker with negotiation and media support. This helped to assemble a core of dedicated active members who in turn ensured strong and strategic utilization of works council structures.

Another key objective of the targeting of support to members who had a track record of using these skills within their workplaces, was increasing action readiness. These core members actively recruit within their companies. Equipping them with the right skills was also central to escalating situations at a local level, notably by delivering highly visible actions.

Targeting resources at workers in this way also dramatically increased member retention. Worker to worker recruitment was also highlighted as a factor likely to be contributing to workers remaining members of the union for much longer.

Inevitably, workers sometimes switch jobs. Amongst cleaners, 90% remain within the sector. Those who have experience in the union bring that with them and this helps broaden the organising effort.

Closing the gap

When negotiations broke down in 2018, workers and their union IG BAU suffered from a lack of action readiness. This was not the case during the subsequent two years. After a well-executed sectoral organising strategy, workers were ready to back their collective position with multiple actions across the country.

Together they won an 11% salary increase over three years and built a solid base for going forward. By lifting the salaries in one of the lowest paid sectors, this collective effort has taken strides towards the realisation of a fairer society, in which all people can work and live in dignity. It doesn’t stop here but, by building power, these workers and their union have given themselves the tools to get an ever-fairer share of the wealth they are so essential to creating.

The EPOC programme brings together unions from across northern and western Europe to organise in a coordinated and effective way by building workers’ power. Its remit is to defend, extend and (re)build collective bargaining by providing support to affiliates in building sustainable structures. Online meetings of the network take place monthly. If your union is interested in getting involved in EPOC, contact Erkan Ersoy or Ben Egan for more information.

Contact