15 Jan 2015 | Ruby Russell

Unions between embracing the new and defending the old in Energiewende

German trade unions are vocal stakeholders in the Energiewende, wary of job losses in the conventional energy sector and campaigning for labour rights in the growing renewables sector. Their importance is amplified by their traditional role as allies for the Social Democrats, the party of the minister in charge of the energy transition. But union members also often drive the move to low-carbon energy on the ground.

Trade unions have long supported the Energiewende, welcoming the new employment opportunities and economic benefits of the growing renewables industry. But they also face major challenges, as the country shifts from an energy sector in which they are well established to industry dominated by start-ups where pay and conditions are often lacking.

“We see the Energiewende as a kind of engine to foster innovative technological development – it creates future jobs for our members," said Sören Niemann-Findeisen, a renewables energy expert at IG Metall, which has 2.3 million members and represents workers in the manufacturing sector. “At the same time we need a transition plan that creates security for all stakeholders in the energy sector.”

German trade unions play an important role in negotiating collective agreements over wages and working conditions and are represented on the boards of the major utilities. As those companies have seen their fortunes decline, trade unions have often found themselves aligned with industry and energy sector management over perceived threats to German jobs.

Fighting job cuts in the conventional power sector

Following a temporary policy reversal, the nuclear phase-out was set in motion again in 2011, with eight facilities taken offline that year, two operated by each of the "big four" utilities, which between them announced plans to cut 15,000 jobs by 2016. Trade unions have resisted these cuts but have supported the phase-out in principal, arguing that job losses should be minimised by refocusing the utilities’ business model.

In 2011, Michael Vassiliadis, head of IG BCE - which represents workers in the energy sector (as well as mining, and the energy-intensive chemicals industry) and has 661,000 members - declared of nuclear power, “It is clear that this form of energy supply has no future in Germany,” while Verdi, the services union which represents workers in nuclear power and has around 2 million members, said the phase-out should take place as quickly as possible.

At the same time, Vassiliadis argued that fossil fuels must continue to make up a significant share of the energy mix, and the unions have held fast to this position, for exmple calling for capacity markets to ensure that fossil fuel power stations remain profitable – without them Verdi says that 60,000 jobs could be at risk.

In late 2014, with the focus of the German energy debate shifting from nuclear to the future of coal, trade unions came out in support of energy minister Sigmar Gabriel’s opposition to a quick exit from coal power generation, and even said it would be acceptable for Germany to miss its 2020 climate targets. The trade unions have traditionally had close ties to Gabriel's Social Democratic Party and Germany's coal producing regions have traditionally been strongholds for both.

The majority of Germany’s major trade unions backed a petition launched in November by IG BCE, calling for “affordable electricity and good jobs,” which has attracted over 100,000 signatures to date and insists that “With all decisions of the Energiewende the yardstick must be that our jobs in energy production and energy-intensive industry are strengthened and secured.”

Energy-intensive industry

Industry voices have repeatedly warned that German jobs could be at risk if rising energy prices drive business out of Germany – and trade union voices have echoed these concerns. “Energy-intensive industry is very connected to the energy sector through the price of power,” Frederik Moch, head of energy policy at the German Trade Union Association (DGB) told the Clean Energy Wire. “So we have to be careful with obligations that drive up the energy price. It is necessary to have some stability in the power price over the coming years.”

“We can see in some parts of the energy-intensive industries the level of investment has decreased in recent years,” Moch added. “For example, in the chemicals industry where energy price is a hard factor in discussions on where to invest, lots of investment has been made in America by German companies.”

German chemicals manufacturer BASF’s recent shift of investment from Germany to the US – blaming European and German regulations for pushing up energy prices at home, and taking advantage of American's use fracking to source shale gas – is frequently cited by those who argue that the energy transition threatens Germany’s competitiveness.

But others point out that energy-intensive industry is exempt from the renewable energy surcharge that pushes up consumer power prices in Germany, meaning companies like BASF only have to pay the wholesale price, which is among the lowest in Europe due to overcapacity and the rise in cheap renewable energy.

Niemann-Findeisen told the Clean Energy Wire he doubts the veracity of claims from heavy industry that power prices are driving operations out of Germany, and said that while IG Metall has consistently argued in favour of the relief for energy intensive industry, the current exemptions go too far.

“We wanted the exemption to be limited to those companies that really need it to be competitive on the world market and what the last government did was to extend it too much so we suddenly had a lot of companies included that are not in this competitive environment – we didn’t want this.”

Labour conditions and job security in the renewables sector

While some sectors fear job cuts, renewables have become a major source of employment. In 2013, 137,800 people were employed in the wind sector, up from 63,900 in 2004. But the unions have concerns over the security of these jobs. A similar number of people were employed in the solar manufacturing sector, which has now largely collapsed. Having allowed feed-in tariffs for solar power to continue at a relatively stable level for years, the government began a more drastic series of cuts in 2012. Combined with competition from China, the fall in guaranteed income hit the sector hard and its workforce reduced by 40 percent from 2012 to 2013. Unions have blamed poor policy and planning on the government’s part for these losses.

And even jobs in branches of the renewables industry that are still going strong raise issues for the unions. A recent survey commissioned by IG Metall,* found that monthly wages in the industry were on average 900 euros lower than those in other manufacturing sectors.

Co-determination, workers’ representation, trade union representation and collective agreements have been fairly under-developed in the wind turbine manufacturing industry but are improving since a couple of years, and also the working conditions are comparatively weak compared to other sub-sectors in metal and electrical industry,” Michael Krug, a researcher at the Free University of Berlin looking at collective work relations in the German wind sector. “In recent years, due mainly to the organising activities of IG Metall, things have changed in several companies - but not all.”

IG Metall’s survey found that conditions were better in the wind sector than in solar, and unions have negotiated collective contracts with companies including Siemens and Areva. But they have come to blows with Germany’s biggest employer in the sector, Enercon, complaining the group offered employees little job security and disrupted attempts to organise. Enercon has rejected these claims.

According to researcher Krug, the conditions are in part due to operations being based in structurally underdeveloped regions – particularly in Germany’s east – where workers have limited options. But Niemann-Findeisen said that such problems were not limited to lower-skilled workers.

“Even the people who work in research and development, which is important for innovation, think that they have better chances elsewhere. So there is the risk of a brain drain. Many university graduates have a green way of thinking, or they want to go into this sector to do good, and then they realise that they don’t advance and they see former co-students go to Daimler or BASF and earn maybe twice as much,” he said.

Worker power driving change

Unions have come a long way on energy policy, and at times their members have even taken the lead on pushing for greener policy. In the 1970s, trade unions resisted a growing anti-nuclear movement, organising pro-nuclear rallies, but they say their position gradually shifted under grassroots pressure. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the DGB officially backed an eventual end to nuclear power in Germany.

Works councils have also initiated green projects like the energy cooperatives set up by Volkswagen employees, who have invested in solar panels covering the factory roof. “It’s an additional revenue for employees and at the same time Volkswagen can use it show how green they are - it has a positive marketing benefit,” said Carsten Herbes, a professor of International Management and Renewable Energy at Nürtingen–Geislingen University working on employee participation in the Energiewende.

Another example in the automobile industry saw the works council at Daimler set up a working group to come up with green ideas to be put into practice by the company, starting with solar panels on factory roofs in 1994, and later providing employees with stations to charge electric bikes.

Moch at the DGB says that workers can also push their employers to improve energy efficiency. “Lots of work councils are concerned about the energy aspects of their company and some try to initiate their own projects, for example reducing energy consumption, not only in big companies – this is also a phenomenon you can see in smaller companies… We think it’s better to lay off kilowatt hours than people.”

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