Who should one be more surprised about: the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) or the media that spread like loudspeakers? In any case, the German public has just been informed, referring to the DGB, that the social insurances "lose about 30 billion euros annually through tariff flight and wage dumping". In other words, if all companies and employees were legally bound to what the DGB unions imagine as collective agreements, pension, health, long-term care and unemployment insurance would have full coffers - and the financial problems would be solved.

The red-green part of the coalition negotiators will certainly be happy to hear that, as it seems to confirm their election promises inspired by the DGB, namely that more companies should be compulsorily bound to third-party regulations, which, according to these companies, do not actually fit their operational conditions. It is probably an effective contribution to combating the strengthening of collective bargaining autonomy announced (also) in the exploratory paper of the traffic light negotiators.

Even the term “flight from collective bargaining”, which is popular in trade union circles, falls under what is called “framing” in modern German: It assumes that companies that are not bound by the desired collective agreement have irrational and, in case of doubt, unfair motives.

Of course, it is the right of unions to say such a thing, and it may even happen in everyday life.

But at the latest, the connection of the term “tariff flight” with a calculation that assumes one hundred percent collective bargaining coverage turns it into a political campaign.

It's not a classic journalistic task.

The DGB unions are constantly losing members

How do collective agreements actually come about? Basically like this: Employees in a company organize themselves in unions in order to work together for higher wages and more favorable working conditions. If necessary, they use the constitutionally secured instrument of the strike to put their employers under such pressure that they are ready to conclude a collective agreement. In contrast, there is no guaranteed right for employees that their employer voluntarily submits to any regulations that other employers have concluded with other employee representatives.

One aspect of the reality is that the proportion of employees whose companies are bound by collective agreements has fallen in recent years. Around half of the employees now work in companies subject to collective bargaining agreements, compared to around 60 percent at the turn of the millennium. Another aspect of reality, however, is that the DGB unions are constantly losing members. According to the DGB lists, their number has fallen from 7.7 million to less than six million since the turn of the millennium. Hardly a seventh of the employees are still unionized today. In the 1970s it was almost 40 percent. 

Strangely enough, there is hardly any discussion in this country about the connection between falling membership numbers in trade unions and falling collective bargaining coverage. Instead of asking the question of how they could recruit more employees for their work themselves, they call - again and again with uncritical political and media support - for more "collective bargaining" by the state. Could it not be that weak unions are also weak because people do not see themselves represented by their specific work? Just for example: What should employees of private care facilities think of the Verdi union, which is working towards the nationalization of the care system?

The collective bargaining policy of the DGB and its comrades-in-arms (also) aims to avoid having to conduct such discussions as far as possible. A shrinking circle of collective bargaining politicians should be given the power to anticipate the content of a supposedly industry-wide balance of interests and to determine it in a binding manner. The least that would have to precede such a restructuring of societal decision-making processes would be a broad and open discourse. The political allegation that employers with a dissenting opinion plundered the social security funds is certainly not a contribution, rather the opposite.

In addition, the apparently spectacular DGB calculation can of course also be questioned economically: Does anyone seriously believe that it would have no impact on job security if suddenly - for example - all automotive suppliers in the transformation crisis were required to join the undiminished IG -Metall tariff with 35-hour week and "full wage compensation"?

With the same logic, the DGB and its media colleagues will probably next claim that the economy is plundering the social security funds because it is not fulfilling its "moral duty" to grant all unemployed people unconditionally and indefinitely (of course, collective bargaining) employment.