Accueil » 51-3 ( 1996) » Le système de relations professionnelles allemand à l'épreuve de la réunification

Le système de relations professionnelles allemand à l'épreuve de la réunification

Michel Lallement


Comme dans de nombreux autres pays industrialisés, l'on assiste en Allemagne, depuis une dizaine d'années, à une nouvelle donne des relations professionnelles sous l'influence notamment des politiques de flexibilité du travail. La réunification entamée en 1989 a également contribué, pour sa part, à modifier les relations collectives de travail. Centré sur les mutations en cours, cet article met en évidence les limites du transfert institutionnel du système de relations professionnelles de l'Ouest vers l'Allemagne oriental et montre, qu'en dépit de telles difficultés, la réunification a contribué à accentuer le processus de décentralisation des négociations collectives qui était déjà perceptible en R.F.A. avant 1989.


The aim of this article is to study the impact of reunification in a specifie area of German society, namely industrial relations. The following two hypotheses are tested: firstly, in spite of the active role of the main union confederation of workers (the DGB), reunification has not yet given rise to a complete homogenization of industrial relations Systems; and, secondly, in the former regions QLander), reunification has intensified the already perceptible trend towards decentralization of collective bargaining.

To test these hypotheses, we draw upon a series of interviews with union and management representatives of the former and new Lander, as well as German industrial relations researchers. Moreover, a review of union and management literature published on the subject since reunification was carried out.

The German industrial relations System is based essentially on regional and sectoral negotiations, in tandem with the principle of non-conflictual action and negotiation at the level of the firm. Among numerous indicators, two significant laws (the 1952 law on works councils and the 1972 law that reformed the councils) justify the thesis that for more than thirty years, a "neo-corporatist" architecture has framed the social relations of work in Germany. However, since the 1980s, the imperatives of work time flexibility, the emergence of new forms of work rationalization and strategies to externalize certain productive activities have undermined the principle of branch bargaining and justified the existence of decentralized bargaining. Reunification of the two Germanys has also had a significant impact on the industrial relations System. Although the unification process has varied considerably from one federation to another, the DGB was quick to push for the dissolution of the former East German confederation and to seek to transfer the West German model of industrial relations to the new Lander. However, the transfer of institutions encountered many obstacles. Besides the difficulties in harmonizing bargaining demands (e.g., was it necessary to equalize salary levels between the East and West?), the honeymoon between West German trade unionists and workers in the East quickly came to an end. In the face of massive layoffs, many works council members in the new Lander soon felt that the union offered little help in fighting massive unemployment or in promoting modemization of enterprises.

This resulted in a loss of support for the D.G.B. (which had benefited from a large wave of memberships in the East following on the heels of reunification) and a strong preference for enterprise-level negotiations. More generally, economie differences between the West and East within the same industry made it difficult to apply the same collective agreement from one region to another.

Bearing in mind, as well, new management strategies aimed at denouncing certain social agreements and the explosion of agreements on models of work organization, reunification will therefore have contributed to accentuating the decentralization of industrial relations, and perhaps more fundamentally modifying the rules of the game of the bargaining System which emerged in Germany during the past decades.