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Germany: New Law Mandates Precedence of Majority Union’s Collective Agreement over Competing Collective Agreements

(June 2, 2015) On May 22, 2015, the German Bundestag (parliament) passed a draft law on collective bargaining agreement unity. (Entwurf eines Gesetzes zur Tarifeinheit (Tarifeinheitsgesetz) [Draft Act on Collective Bargaining Agreement Unity (Collective Agreement Unity Act)], DEUTSCHER BUNDESTAG: DRUCKSACHEN UND PROTOKOLLE [BT] 18/4062 (Feb. 20, 2015).) The controversial legislation passed with a vote of 444 for, 126 against, and 16 abstentions. (Bundestag beschließt das Gesetz zur Tarifeinheit [German Parliament Adopts Act on Collective Bargaining Agreement Unity], Deutscher Bundestag website (May 22, 2015).)

The German Bundesrat (Federal Council), the constitutional body through which the states participate in the legislation and administration of the Federation, will debate the draft law on June 12, 2015. (Tagesordnung der 934. Sitzung am Freitag, dem 12. Juni 2015, 9.30 Uhr [Agenda for the 934th Meeting on Friday, June 12, 2015, 9:30 a.m.], Deutscher Bundesrat website (June 2, 2015).) It had previously decided not to object to the law. (Stellungnahme des Bundesrates [Statement of the Bundesrat], BUNDESRAT DRUCKSACHEN [BR] 635/14 (Feb. 6, 2015).)

Features of the Draft Act

Currently, different collective agreements of competing unions can apply at the same time to employees belonging to the same occupational group (a situation known as Tarifkollision [collision of collective agreements]). The Act adds a new section 4a to the Collective Agreement Act. (Tarifvertragsgesetz, TVG (as promulgated on Aug. 25, 1969, BUNDESGESETZBLATT [BGBl.] I at 1323, as amended, GERMAN LAWS ONLINE.)

The revised law postulates that to the extent that non-identical collective agreements from different unions in a company conflict, only the provisions from the collective agreement of the majority union will apply. (Collective Agreement Act, § 4a, ¶ 2, sentence 2.) The majority union is the union that has the most members at the time a subsequent collective agreement that includes the colliding provisions is concluded. If a collision later takes place because new provisions have been added to the agreement, that later time is relevant for determining which union has a majority. (Id. § 4a, ¶ 2, sentence 3.)

Reactions to the Draft Act

Article 9, paragraph 3, of the German Basic Law guarantees to every individual and to every occupation or profession the freedom of association to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions. (Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland [Grundgesetz] [GG] [Basic Law] (May 23, 1949), BGBL. I at 1; Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany [unofficial English translation] (as last amended July 11, 2012), GERMAN LAWS ONLINE.) The guarantee includes collective bargaining autonomy, which is primarily achieved by bargaining and conclusion of collective agreements, and, if necessary, through labor disputes. (BUNDESVERFASSUNGSGERICHT [BVerfG] [FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL COURT], 38 ENTSCHEIDUNGEN DES BUNDESVERFASSUNGSGERICHTS [BVerfGE] [DECISIONS OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL COURT] at 281, 305 et seq.; 84 BVerfGE 212, 224; 94 BVerfGE 268, 283.)

Opponents of the draft law claim that it infringes on that constitutional guarantee and on the unions’ right to strike. (Chase Gummer, New Law Could Worsen Germany’s Rail Crisis, POLITICO.EU (May 22, 2015).) Several unions therefore have voiced their intention to challenge the law before the Federal Constitutional Court. (Tarifeinheitsgesetz:Marburger Bund Will Verfassungsbeschwerde Erheben [Collective Agreement Unity Act: Marburger Bund Will Lodge Constitutional Complaint], AERZTEBLATT.DE (May 9, 2015); Dietrich Creutzburg, Tarifeinheitsgesetz. Nie Wieder Lokführer-Streiks? [Collective Agreement Unity Act. No More Train Conductor Strikes?], FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG (Mar. 5, 2015).)

Many labor law and constitutional law scholars, among them prominent former Constitutional Court Justices, have stated that the draft law violates the Basic Law. (Joachim Jahn, Verfassungsrechtler zweifeln an Gesetz zur Tarifeinheit [Constitutional Law Scholars Voice Concerns About the Act on Collective Agreement Unity], FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG (Mar. 22, 2015); Ausschuss Für Arbeit und Soziales [Committee on Labor and Social Affairs], Materialien zur öffentlichen Anhörung von Sachverständigen [Materials Concerning the Public Hearing of Experts], AUSSCHUSSDRUCKSACHE 18(11)357(neu), German Parliament website (Apr. 29, 2015).) The constitutional experts argue that the minority unions will not be able to exercise their fundamental rights, as codified in article 9, paragraph 3, of the Basic Law under the draft law, because they will not in fact be able to conclude collective agreements or strike in order to protect their rights as stated in those agreements if only larger union contracts are applicable. (Materialien zur öffentlichen Anhörung von Sachverständigen, supra, at 28.)

Former Constitutional Court Justice Hans-Jürgen Papier, however, is a notable exception to the above group of experts and a proponent of the constitutionality of the new provision. He asserts that the legislature has a duty to protect collective bargaining autonomy and that the draft act only aims to safeguard the continuing functionality of that autonomy and the option of exercising it by avoiding collective agreement conflicts. (Id. at 9.)