German Politics

Even More Zeitenwende

Finally online. In this post, I try to address some of the points raised by the two discussants Markus and Hans ze Beeman with regard to my Zeitenwende entry below.

Is there really a “union demonisation game” going on, as Markus alleges? It would be a very interesting academic question to identify in detail the extent of “responsibility” the unions have to bear with respect to this econom’s problems to adjust to a changing economic climate. But that would be a question that would have to be addressed in a multitude of phd theses in economic history and political science. But that’s evidently a bit beyond the scope of this little blog. But to cut the long story short – here’s what I think.

The union’s involvement in the corporatist decision making process in Germany, directly in institutions like the Federal Employment Office (Bundesanstalt für Arbeit) as well as indirectly through political parties, in particular the SPD, in my opinion allows to assert that their organisational interests in combination with the specificites of the German social security system are indeed to a significant extent responsible for a the German economy’s problems to adjust to changing economic climate. In fact,

What I wanted to say in my first Zeitenwende entry was not that the Unions are the only ones responsible for the lack of flexibility in the German economy. But their sometimes healthy, but these days often unhealthy, class-warfare-reminiscent interventions are part of what I referred to as “failed leadership”.

I don’t see them as a victim of “neoliberal discourse hegemony” [neoliberal has become a rather empty label these days, if there ever was a real meaning to it]. But even if, I don’t think scapegoating them would have negative impacts on their functional role – it is not their wage bargaining function that being scapegoated but their claimed general social policy mandate. The latter is mainly a question of discourse hegemony, in my opinion. I agree that an analytical seperation is difficult – where should the line be drawn? In the end, it probably comes down to the question whether the unions can credibly claim to fill the term “social justice” with a meaning.

For a long time, they could. But now, I am sensing that the balance of power has shifted. This country has been debating these questions for ages. There hasn’t been fundamental growth since 1992. While some said back then what others are saying today, timing is very important in politics, especially, of course, when it comes to such a major social policy overhaul as we will be witnessing soon.

It is certainly difficult to separate signals from noise and echos in this debate, but I sense that the union’s constant opposition in the light of continuing economic gloom has led many people to conclude that they haven’t quite mastered the available figures. An example of what I am referring to is that Germany’s most popular satire programme mad fun of unions in its final episode. I can’t remember a single previous episode in which the unions were dealt with in a critical way. Actually, watching this was the original motivation to write an entry about “the end of an era”. In this respect, Hans ze Beeman has posted a link to some interesting ones generated by a huge internet survey carried out by the consultancy McKinsey & Company.

So I stand by my opinion: More and more people are willing to invest in the size of the pie rather than simply fight about their share.

In the end, as we all seem to agree on the necessity of deregulation, the question of union demonization comes down to one of processual ethics in politics. I would say that it is perfectly in order to use the unions as scapegoats, should that be necessary – others might disagree because they fear that this could be taked too far, thereby seriously damaging the fundamentals of corporatist coopration without any real alternative. This clearly is possible. But I don’t think so.

Sure, in an ideal world, I would prefer to have a Habermas’ ideal speech situation and have everyone agree on what’s necessary for everyone. But – Markus guessed rightly that I would say so – such a world does not exist. And in this world, in my opinion, careful union bashing is just what is necessary now.

PS: The comments are not gone. I just don’t know why Reblogger does not display them. I hope I can fix that later. In the meantime, please find the two “lost” comments below. All others are in the comment section to the first entry.

markus(www) said at 12:20 25/5/2003:

the missing part of your post may make this comment stupid, but I’ll risk it nonetheless: why do we need a scapegoat? why can’t we go about this in a rational way?

as far as I can tell, there are some suggestions from the unions which make sense. For instance, downsizing the about 80.000 tax rules Germany currently has (I got the number from a recent documentary). on the other side, there are restrictions, which hinder the economy, which the unions try to keep and in which the unions truly represent the workers in the electorate. job security for instance. so why is this issue tackled by bashing the unions, instead of entering into a dialogue with the electorate and explaining slowly and carefully, without spin and hype, why this step is necessary. You might say, politics don’t work that way, to which I’d respond we can’t afford the traditional ways of politics any more. To me, the purely party-san style of politics we have now, where each side cries “murder” whenever opposing an unpopular but necessary measure might gain some votes is far more damaging to the economy (basically because I believe it adversely affects the psychological requirements for growth) than the unions. They are of course part of it, playing along, just as e.g. the “Bundesaerztekammer”.

If we agree, that the problem is the electorate’s unwillingness to change the status-quo, bashing a scapegoat won’t help. Sure, those doing the bashing may feel better afterwards, for venting some righteous anger but IMHO it’s just a further distraction from the real problem.

That said, I’d like to add I don’t wholly agree with your distinction between the wage bargaining function of the unions and their claimed genral social policy mandate. Please elaborate, why representatives of a sizeable percentage of the employees cannot adress other issues than wages, like for instance job security, working conditions etc. We certainly both have a gut feeling for the point at which the unions are no longer doing their real job, but I can’t think of an analytical solution to this. Ceterum censeo, your input windows are too small, please change width from 122px to a percentage.

hans ze beeman(www) said at 23:33 25/5/2003:

why is this issue tackled by bashing the unions, instead of entering into a dialogue with the electorate and explaining slowly and carefully, without spin and hype, why this step is necessary

because this has been done ad nauseam. It is not time to ponder, ruminate, explain or discuss anymore, it is TIME TO ACT. And the trade unions today showed what they thought about Agenda 2010, which is NOTHING compared to the necessary future changes: they protested in a fully rational way. I predict there will be a grand coalition at the end of the year, and Schr�der will be gone. This would end the immobility and solipsism of the big parties.

If we agree, that the problem is the electorate’s unwillingness to change the status-quo, bashing a scapegoat won’t help.

Errrm, 75% of Germans according to Emnid want changes. And look at for an intersting picture of public opinion. Personally, I bash the unions because they represent socialism and etatism, which is the contrary to freedom. They hide their socialism under the label of “social justice”, which is even more appaling (the representants of the trade unions are either incompetent or cynical and sardonic concerning the people they claim to “represent”). Just look at the renoveling of the “Betriebsverfassungsgesetz”, which produced larger unemployment because those companies having more than 200 employees must now put up with a “Betriebsrat”. See here: Many companies with 20x employees put some out of job or did not hire new ones to stay beneath the 200 border.