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Fisher, Paul / Works councils in Germany

Works council- a factor in union weakness,   pp. 28-32 PDF (2.3 MB)

Page 31

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Is the works council institution responsible for any of these
weaknesses of the German labor movement? The basic adjustment
which the trade union movement made in 1918-1920 to the works
council movement caused, as noted previously, a division of functions
which left to the works council the representation of all worker
demands arising within the plant (intra-shop), and to the unions
all supra-enterprise labor questions. This retirement from the
problems of the shop and concentration on industry-wide and
national problems increased the tendency of the German union
towards centralization, political action, legalism and statism.
However, these characteristics of the German labor movement are
so thoroughly founded in its tradition, its historical development,
in the industrial life and in the make-up of German society, that
the works councils contribution to this end appears almost negligible.
Consequently, the abolition of the works council which seems
to be advocated in certain union quarters would fail by itself to
change union weakness into union strength. It could be advocated
only after the unions had established working substitutes for the
works council: namely, locals, shop stewards and shop steward
committees after the Anglo-American model. Such penetration of
unions into the plant could render the works council obsolete,
and might assist in producing that immediacy of contact between
workers and union which is not too well developed now. It could
create for the workers what has so aptly been called "the university
of the union movement," real union democracy.   It could inject life
blood into the mass of organizational paper work which now characterizes
so much of German union activities.
All of this needs more than a mere structural change, and would
presuppose the eradication of all other causes of union weakness
as well. To do away with the works council in the absence of an
adequate and time tested substitute would be dangerous. Such action
could easily intensify the always existing danger of calcification
and bureaucratization, and increase the overdeveloped centralization
of powers. Unquestioned abolition of the works council may end up
by destroying one of the more effective checks on these trends. At
present, such a move is probably quite unfeasible and politically unwise.
It would be opposed to German tradition, by workers and employers,
and by works council members who have very definite vested interests
to defend. The union movement will probably have to continue living
with the works council. It can do so successfully if it sharpens
all the various tools of control it has developed. To use them to
full advantage, it must gain in strength.
Fortunately, there are good reasons to assume that this may
happen. Union leadership is and always has been very well aware
of the need of increased missionary work among its members. A group

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