The four-day week is a long way off

They are the new ones at the top of the DGB Baden-Wurttemberg: Kai Burmeister and Maren Diebel-Ebers. At the weekend, the metalworker and the unionist were elected in Stuttgart. An interview about her motivation for the task and capitalism.

Half video conference, half live: conversation with the new DGB-BW leaders Kai Burmeister, in front, and Maren Diebel-Ebers, connected in large format. Photos: Joachim E. Rottgers

Half video conference, half live: conversation with the new DGB-BW leaders Kai Burmeister, in front, and Maren Diebel-Ebers, connected in large format. Photos: Joachim E. Rottgers

Now it will be fair

At the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) Baden-Wurttemberg, about 100 delegates adopted last Saturday, 29. January 2022 at a digital district conference in Stuttgart, the previous chairman Martin Kunzmann, who is retiring at the age of 65. And they elected the new chairmen: Kai Burmeister was elected first chair with 98 percent and Maren Diebel-Ebers was elected vice chair with 97 percent. Your program for the next four years is entitled "Justice offensive for Baden-Wurttemberg". (lee)

Ms. Diebel-Ebers, Mr. Burmeister, how do you have to be knitted to become and be DGB chairman or vice chairman??

Kai Burmeister: You have to have a clear view of the problems in the world of work, you have to want to stand up for the interests of employees and make clear demands to politicians. And you have to feel a lot of fun at work. That’s the way it is with me, it drives me on. So the fight for justice and against injustice motivates me and that’s how I’m knitted.

What do you consider to be your most important quality for your new task, Ms. Diebel-Ebers??

Maren Diebel-Ebers: I am good at connecting people and I like to be the translator between dependent employees and politics when it comes to achieving improvements for employees. That is what defines me. Of course, you need patience and staying power – that’s part of our job.

What do I need the DGB for as an employee?? I do have my trade union.

KB: Of course, the union is anchored in the company through the union secretary, the works and staff councils, and store stewards. Sure, they are there when it comes to: Is something wrong with the payroll?? How to proceed with the location? But we have many issues that go beyond the individual union, and that’s where the DGB is the place where we look in the union family, for example, how do we get to new groups of employees? How does the hundred-thousandfold attempt of mobile work affect at present? Every industrial worker also has an interest in good public services. After all, you don’t fight for yourself in every company, but in the industries and in public for social progress. And we do that for all employees. From there, we also need a strong DGB.

MDE: We are approaching the politicians with concrete requirements. An example: Here in Heidelberg, we have the problem that many people commute to work in Heidelberg, but there are often no suitable bus or train connections. There is little time for a member union to take care of that. We as DGB have made this an issue. We ensure that works councils and staff councils, for example, are represented in decision-making bodies and that they are also heard. That is the task of the DGB.

Non-partisan, but not apolitical

The DGB is the umbrella organization of eight trade unions: IG Metall, Verdi, IG BAU, NGG, GEW, GdP, IG BCE, EVG. In Baden-Wurttemberg, it stands for 800.000 Trade union members. The DGB was founded in 1949 as a unified trade union to overcome the directional trade unions that existed until 1933. Organized is the DGB with full-time as well as voluntary committees down to the district level. It sees itself as non-partisan, but not politically neutral. The DGB is financed by the individual trade unions. (LEE.)

Ms. Diebel-Ebers, you come directly from the DGB and previously worked for an SPD member of the Bundestag for a while. Have you never wanted a normal job??

MDE: I think my job is pretty normal. Working for a member of parliament gave me a good basis for understanding the political business. I once asked myself whether I should have gone into business. But I wanted to combine working with people with a political job, and that works best in the union. That’s why I’m very happy with the DGB.

It’s not much different for you, Mr. Burmeister. After training and studying, you went straight into the trade union apparatus. Wouldn’t it be helpful if you had done some works council work and knew what was going on in normal business and working life??

KB: So I can justifiably say that I know what’s going on in normal economic and working life. I am in contact with companies practically every day. I would not have made a good craftsman, even repairing a bicycle is difficult for me. I did my apprenticeship at Lubeck City Hall, and I was with IG Metall, where I was most recently works council chairman. I think that representation of interests has to be very professional. We represent the interests of good work, and to have done this for a long time and to do it professionally is a pound of gold. I have had so many different tasks in the IG Metall – from the basic principles department at the IG Metall executive board to plant support at Daimler in Sindelfingen. Even there, there’s not one labor reality. There are the specialized people for electromobility and autonomous driving, there is temporary work. The woman in the canteen has a different working reality than the colleague in the paint shop. You can’t have done all the jobs in this working world at one time or another.

You are a member of BUND. Do you have a beehive in your garden or what is the point of being a BUND member??

KB: We don’t have a beehive in our garden. I am concerned that climate change will undermine our prosperity and our jobs if we let it continue. The environmental issue is very important to me. If industry is to have a future – and I want it to – we have to answer the ecological question. We discuss with the BUND as well as with Fridays for Future how it can work with the ecological turnaround.

Do you think we can avert or contain the climate catastrophe and at the same time maintain the car industry in relation to capitalism??

KB: The automotive industry will change rapidly and will have to change. It has to become more ecological and it has to make its contribution to climate neutrality now, that can’t be postponed. Driving this forward is also our task. Works councils, the IG Metall trade union, the DGB support this.

The four-day week is a long way off

Kai Burmeister

Born in Lubeck, he started working for IG Metall in 2005 after training as an administrative assistant and studying economics. Most recently, he dealt with transformation in the district management of Baden-Wurttemberg. Burmeister, born in 1976, is married, has two daughters and lives in Stuttgart. In addition to IG Metall, he is also a member of the SPD, BUND, Medico International and VVN-BdA. (lee)

My impression is that IG Metall wants one thing above all: battery cars, battery cars, battery cars.

KB: Battery electrics are a major contribution to achieving very realistic CO2 reduction targets. And the EU regulations, also the regulations in other important car markets like China and California, are so strict that the car industry is now already in a rapid transformation process. In order to reduce CO2 emissions over a longer life cycle, electromobility and battery-powered electrics are a very important and necessary approach.

MDE: We as the DGB and our member unions are convinced that we need a mobility revolution in order to achieve the climate targets. But people will only change if alternative means of transport become more attractive. To achieve this, we need investments in pedestrian, bicycle and rail traffic as well as in public transport employees. Public transit must become an industry of good work. But we also have to enter into an exchange with the employees in the companies and promote company mobility management there.

Again: And this works within the capitalist system?

KB: There are, of course, capital interests that stand in the way of this. The point is, and this is the historic task that trade unions have always had, to achieve social progress under capitalist conditions and nowadays also ecological progress.

So the DGB no longer wants to overcome capitalism – or does it??

KB: We probably won’t make it in the next four years. But all kidding aside: I’m all in favor of talking seriously about the whole yield madness and other excesses. What kind of returns do pension funds, stock owners and asset managers actually expect?? What’s prevailing is so far away from the reality in the factories – we have to talk about that. Regulation, containment, dealing with platform capitalism, what is the economy actually for – this is a social debate that the trade unions are conducting intensively.

The four-day week is a long way off

Maren Diebel-Ebers

The 40-year-old economist worked in the parliamentary office of Lothar Binding (SPD) in her hometown of Freiburg after completing her studies. In 2008, she moved to the DGB in Mannheim; since 2018, she has been working on regional structural policy and public services at the DGB Baden-Wurttemberg. Diebel-Ebers is married, has a son and a daughter, and lives in Heidelberg. She is a Verdi member, in the SPD and in the tenants’ association. (lee)

So for now, let’s look at the next four years. What are the three top issues for you??

MDE: My focus will be on services of general interest, and here clearly the mobility turnaround, more affordable housing, educational justice and good health care.

KB: At the core, we have three long lines for the next four years. Services of general interest, public investment, as Maren said. Second point: the transformation of industry, sustainability and job security. We want to renew the industrial base in Baden-Wurttemberg, but not abolish it. We want to prevent transformation from meaning relocation, site closures and tariff evasion. This also means that trade unions have to take a critical look at the question of growth, which is why we also want to work productively with environmental associations and Fridays for Future on the conflicts that exist between the economy and ecology. People at Fridays for Future are interested in what we say, and they tell us: don’t underestimate this with the ecological urgency. And the third point is the question of how digitization is changing us. Let’s look at the example of large platforms. They get incredibly rich and on the other hand they often build on a network of cheap workers. This starts with the delivery of meals. Which of us was last at the bank?? No, many are doing it with the app.

MDE: Because we have to, because the bank has closed its branch.

KB: Yes, but there are also new Internet banks. And there are strong efforts against works councils. The motto is: free muesli, but co-determination is denied. That must not be the hallmark of these new areas. This starts with every Amazon delivery warehouse, and is the question with Tesla in Brandenburg. Are co-determination-free zones being created there?? Digitization and digital companies need co-determination, collective agreements, and employees there need clear rights.

In your speech, you said that Mr. Kretschmann should do more to promote collective bargaining with employers. Are you satisfied with eleven years of green prime ministership??

KB: We are in an open and critical exchange with the Prime Minister. I would like to see our demands that are also in the coalition agreement – the training guarantee, greater collective bargaining coverage – now also implemented. There are good approaches in the coalition agreement, but they need to be implemented. To answer your question succinctly: We are in exchange, if the prime minister would listen to us more, I would be more pleased.

MDE: Of course, we are closer to the SPD on some points, but there is a good exchange with the Green Group and with the Green Party. I would say you learn from each other. And there are also many overlaps.

Is the class question still a question for the DGB??

KB: Trade unions have come into being for this very reason. There are many social scientists like Oliver Nachtwey and Nicole Mayer-Ahuia who are rethinking the class question and are on the cutting edge of the division of society and the working society. Some people are getting richer – see the platform economy – while others are stuck in precarious jobs or Hartz IV. It is crucial that we address employees and our members in the way they want to be perceived. That there is division and injustice is beyond question. And of course we know where we come from and what kind of society we live in.

MDE: And the fact that we are big supporters of the redistribution of wealth and assets is one of our core demands.

One question that I am personally very interested in and I am now taking the opportunity to ask the two new DGB presidents: When will the four-day week come?

KB: Working hours are often too long, the actual ones exceed the collectively agreed ones. In the metal industry, we have the 35-hour week by collective agreement. But we also have many areas where working hours are not regulated, where people work much more than these 35 hours. I think this 35 is a reasonable standard and I advocate for more collective bargaining with shorter working hours. In the metal industry, we have pushed through the shortened full-time to 28 hours per week as well as the option of eight days off for childcare, care and shift work. Employees today want working time sovereignty, we are working on that. I can imagine a working week where we work four days and use one day for further education and qualification. I think that’s a sensible suggestion, also for the transformation, in order to achieve a real qualification offensive.

Let’s look at Iceland, which is introducing the four-day week, or Spain, where there is now to be a trial – that’s going too far for you?

MDE: I believe we must first strengthen collective bargaining, promote higher wages and shorter working hours. Then we can talk about further steps.

Transparency note: Gesa von Leesen is a member of the German Journalists’ Union (dju), which is part of the Verdi trade union.

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