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Varieties of decentralisation in German collective bargaining – experiences from metal industry and retail trade

WP C.S.D.L.E. “Massimo D’Antona”.INT – 137/2017

This is the German country report of the European Project DECOBA (Leonardi and Pedersini, forthcoming), funded by the European Commission and promoted and coordinated by the Fondazione Di Vittorio, with a partnership including the University of Leuven (HIVA), “La Sapienza” Rome (Faculty of sociology), the Hans Boeckler Foundation, IRES France, the Fundacion 1° de Mayo, the European Trade Unions Confederation (ETUC).

To be soon published in Leonardi and Pedersini (eds.), Multi-employer bargaining under pressure. Decentralization trends in five European Countries, Brussels, ETUI (forthcoming).

In international literature Germany is often regarded as a standard case of ‘organised’ or ‘controlled decentralisation’. The basic idea is that trade unions and employers’ associations at sector-level define the scope for (usually temporary) derogations at company level via so-called opening clauses within the framework of strong multi-employer bargaining. As a result the German bargaining system seem to cerate a new balance between sector-wide standards and flexibility for the company.

The international perception of the German model of decentralisation, however, is in many respects rather idealised and does not reflect German collective bargaining in all its diversity. It is is very much viewed through the lenses of major manufacturing industries, such as chemicals or metalworking, which industrial relations regimes differ very much from those in other sectors, such as private services. Secondly, the concept of ‘organised decentralisation’ often takes a too rosy view and underestimates the level of conflict. As German experiences show clearly, collective bargaining decentralisation is not about a more or less ‘intelligent’ mode of regulation, but about different interests and power relations. It deals with the fundamental conflict between setting up a level playing-field for all companies and recognising the specific interests and circumstances of individual firms.

Against the background of a more generals analysis of recent trends in German collective bargaining, this paper provides two in-depth case studies – one on the metal industry and one on retail trade – which represents very different variants of decentralisation. While the metal industry fits at least partly to the model of organised decentralisation, retail trade represents a rather different story of mainly dis-organised decentralisation and overall decline oft the bargaining coverage. The overall trends in German collective bargaining could be characterised by a parallel development of both organised and non-organised forms of decentralisation with strong differences among sectors.

author(s): Schulten , Thorsten - Bispinck, Reinhard
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