Social Partnership at Work: Workplace Relations in Post‐unification Germany

Roderick Martin (Department of Management, University of Southampton, UK)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Martin, R. (2000), "Social Partnership at Work: Workplace Relations in Post‐unification Germany", Employee Relations, Vol. 22 No. 4, pp. 423-428.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Social Partnership at Work is a careful study of workplace industrial relations in the textile and clothing industry in the Saxony district of the former GDR. The central argument is that West German industrial relations institutions have been introduced with some success into the new länder. The West German textile trade union Gewerkschaft Textil Bekleidung (GTB) expanded into the former GDR, and achieved a higher density of membership than in West Germany, although in both regions the density is falling (in 1994, 48.2 per cent in the south eastern district compared with 42.7 per cent in the west). Initial fears that the low standing of GDR trade unions would inhibit membership of the new unions proved unfounded. Works councils have been successfully introduced, and operate as intermediaries between employees and management rather than being incorporated into management structures, as many West German scholars anticipated.

On the basis of surveys of union members in the clothing and textile industries in Saxony and in two regions of West Germany, Frege concludes that member attitudes are similar: in both groups there is strong identification with the union, a strong consciousness of “us versus them” and strong identification with the work‐group. The most interesting difference is that identification with the work group is higher in the east than in the west, indicating that the fears of an “identity” crisis and alienated individualism among East German workers were misplaced. The survey findings are reinforced by a detailed case study of a clothing enterprise in Saxony, where Frege was able to interview managers and works councillors as well as to survey employees. Employee attitudes and the modus operandi of industrial relations institutions in the new länder are, thus, quite similar to the old länder: the similarities are more profound than the differences. Frege is, thus, sceptical about the significance of socialist legacies in the former DDR. The differences in employee attitudes and in the workings of industrial relations institutions between the two parts of Germany would seem to owe more to economic conditions than to geography or recent history. Output in the region covered by the study declined by 72 per cent between 1990 and 1993 (p. 58), the industry was required to re‐orient from producing for the Russian and East European market to producing for West Germany, and the product mix changed. Fortunately for the case study plant “Bodywear”, it was taken over from the Treuhandanstalt by a German‐Swiss company, which invested heavily in new plant and equipment and retraining.

The book may be assessed in three ways. First, as a contribution to understanding the impact of German unification upon East German enterprises, and the extent to which there are continuing differences between the regions of the former FRG and DDR. Second, as a source of comparison for comparative research into the Central and East European transition: what lessons, if any, does the East German experience have for understanding other Central and East European countries in transition. Third, as a contribution to the social psychological approach to union participation.

Frege shows that many West German fears about the future of employee attitudes and workplace institutions in the new länder were misplaced. Her analysis is more optimistic than expected, and contrasts sharply with “the mainstream pessimistic account found in the German literature” (p. 179).

[I]t is a remarkable indication of the stability and successful institutionalisation of the German social partnership model that union members in the declining clothing industry in east Germany revealed such a considerable support and trust for their new labour institutions … The likelihood of a vicious circle of disappointed members and absence of support resulting in a backlash on the institutional performance is therefore less probable at this stage (p. 184).

However, her conclusions may be too sanguine. First, the survey evidence is confined to the employed, and to trade unionists, who are likely to be more socially integrated than the unemployed, and non‐trade unionists. Second, the evidence relates to 1994‐95, and management was already threatening that production would be transferred to the Czech Republic, where the company had opened a plant, if productivity did not improve. There is no indication of what has happened since 1995. Third, the company was favoured with significant new investment, increasing employee confidence in management commitment to the plant – many other plants were not so favoured. Fourth, as Frege suggests, attitudes may differ between different parts of the new länder (between Berlin and Saxony), but she provides little evidence on the community and regional environments within which the survey was carried out. Fifth, there was greater dissatisfaction among employees than among works councillors (and greater criticism amongst ordinary works councillors than amongst the two full‐time councillors in Bodywear), suggesting an element of incorporation by management of the leading councillors. Finally, there is evidence of dissatisfaction with earnings levels, which continued to lag behind West German levels, and resentment at work intensification. Levels of satisfaction were believed to have been greater in the socialist period, although this may be the result of a golden haze. In short, Frege may be justified in her optimism about industrial relations institutions, but the evidence relates to only a very limited area and an early stage of post socialist development.

Frege shows much higher levels of identification with, and confidence in, trade unions and industrial relations institutions among German employees than is evident in research in other Central and East European countries. Scepticism about trade unionism is evident in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and even in Poland. The issue of the conditions for successful institutional transfer is raised (pp. 184‐5), but not taken very far. The author stresses the significance for creating trust of the mandatory nature of the dual system of employee representation, in line with Streeck’s earlier arguments regarding West Germany. But she does not consider alternative explanations for the success of institutional transfer from West to East Germany in a comparative context: history, nationalism, the mode of exit from socialism, politics, economic performance, and other factors. The study would have been considerably enriched by a fuller comparative analysis.

Third, Frege seeks to test alternative social psychological theories of union identification and participation. Following a highly compressed evaluation of alternative approaches to union participation, she develops a social psychological approach focusing upon social identity and rational choice. Put simply, do employees join unions out of identification (as had been suggested for West German members) or out of calculation (as had been suggested for East German members)? She concludes that the concepts of “social identity” and “collective instrumentality” are highly related: in both West and East Germany, union identification and instrumentality are associated with each other. Her conclusion that union members are both rational individuals and social beings (p. 177) is hardly surprising. By narrowing her focus to “testing” (particular variants of) theories of social identification and rational choice she omits to discuss potentially interesting findings, such as the link between job satisfaction and union participation in West Germany, and its possible significance for theories of dual commitment.

Social Partnership at Work is based on a wide knowledge of the German and English language literature, and careful field work. The book devotes more attention to seeking to test social psychological theories of participation, and less attention to broader issues of institutional developments and institutional transfer, than this reviewer would have wished. It would have been valuable, for example, to have taken the story beyond 1995. However, the book remains a valuable addition to the English language literature on modern German industrial relations.

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