Trade unions are communities of solidarity which seek to advance workers’ rights. At the political level, trade unions press for fair working conditions and pay, and for vulnerable people to be protected.
As an EU citizen, you can join a trade union in Germany just like national workers and exercise trade union rights. These rights include eligibility for the trade union’s administrative or management posts, and the right to vote in trade union elections and stand as a candidate.
Trade union membership offers many benefits, particularly with regard to legal protection:
Members receive free legal advice and representation by a lawyer on issues relating to
- labour law (pay, holiday leave, dismissal, etc.),
- health insurance and long-term care insurance funds, unemployment insurance, pension insurance (illness, accidents at work, accidents on the way to or from work),
- other issues relating to social law and administrative law.
Please note: You need to have been a member of the trade union in question and paid your membership fee for at least 3 months to be entitled to receive free legal advice or legal representation.
In general, the monthly fee is 1% of the average gross monthly income. Students, pensioners and jobseekers pay lower fees, which are calculated differently depending on the trade union in question.
Membership of a trade union offers many more benefits, even beyond the legal protection provided.
Moreover, trade union membership strengthens your integration in the organisation where you work. And your membership also helps to promote fairer working conditions in the sector in which you work.
The German Trade Union Confederation (Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund – DGB) has 8 different member unions. If you do not know which is the relevant trade union for you, you can also join a trade union via the German Trade Union Confederation.
Collective agreements (Tarifverträge) contain important rights which you, as an employee, can invoke in dealing with your employer. These rights include, in particular, entitlements to a given salary or wage, or to allowances for overtime or for working on public holidays. Other financial entitlements are often established in collective agreements as well, such as entitlements to a severance payment, a Christmas bonus or a holiday bonus, etc.
A collective agreement can apply to your employment contract by the following means:
- A collective agreement applies to you if you are a member of a trade union which concluded the agreement and your employer is bound by the agreement. An employer is bound by a collective agreement if it is a member of the trade union or has itself concluded a collective agreement with the trade union.
- A collective agreement also applies to you if your contract with your employer states that a specific collective agreement applies to your employment relationship. In this case, it is irrelevant whether you are a member of the trade union or whether your employer is a member of an employers’ association.
- A collective agreement also applies to you if the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has declared it to be generally binding. Again, in this case it is irrelevant whether you are a member of the trade union or whether your employer is a member of an employers’ association. You can find a list of all collective agreements which have been declared to be generally binding here.
Please note: Collective agreements apply even if you and your employer are unaware of them. Entitlements under collective agreements lapse after a certain period of time or expire due to time limitations.
It is therefore important for you to find out whether any collective agreements apply to you, and if so, which.
In Germany, trade unions do not have branches in the workplace. Instead, works councils (Betriebsräte) are the most important points of contact concerning problems in the workplace. Works councils, in turn, work closely with the trade union.
The works council represents the interests of an organisation’s workforce. It monitors whether the employer is complying with the applicable laws, occupational safety and health provisions, collective agreements and organisation-level agreements. The works council also seeks to promote the equal treatment of employees and the integration of foreign employees.
To enable the works council to carry out its tasks, it has certain powers and options within the organisation in question.
The works council:
- has to approve every new hire,
- must be heard before every dismissal,
- ensures fair assignment to pay groups,
- is involved in determining working conditions (start and end times, breaks, overtime, on-call service, part-time work, etc.,
- seeks to promote the rights of apprentices,
- makes arrangements for occupational safety and health,
- and can request measures to tackle racism and xenophobia in the workplace.
If there is no works council in your organisation, you can set one up.
If you are a member of a works council, you enjoy special protection against dismissal. Dismissing works council members by notice is completely prohibited. This protection against dismissal applies for the period from when the individual stands for election until one year after the end of his or her membership of the works council.
The works council can conclude organisation-level agreements (Betriebsvereinbarungen) with the employer. Organisation-level agreements are either general regulations, i.e. which apply to all employees of an organisation, or regulations which apply to certain groups of employees, on the basis of an agreement between the employer and the works council. These agreements contain many regulations setting out your rights and responsibilities as an employee of the organisation. These can include, for example, general principles for allotting holiday time or holiday schedules for the current year, working time, time and attendance recording, rules on breaks, or requirements regarding employees’ behaviour towards colleagues or customers.
Many organisation-level agreements are important for financial reasons as well, as they can establish entitlements to payments, for example commission, wage supplements or annual targ
FAQ Trade unions
In principle, the employees of every organisation with five members of staff who are entitled to vote have the right to set up a works council. Members of staff must be aged 18 or over to be entitled to vote. Temporary workers (Leiharbeitnehmer) are entitled to vote if they have been working in the organisation to which they are temporarily assigned for longer than 3 months.
Works councils only exist where there are enough dedicated employees who are willing to set one up. All members of staff who stand for election and have worked for the organisation for at least 6 months can be elected to the works council. Nationality and place of residence are irrelevant in this context.
Please note: Temporary workers cannot stand for election to the works council in the organisation to which they are temporarily assigned. However, they can do so in the temporary work agency which employs them.
The size of the works council depends on the number of employees entitled to vote in the organisation.
The members of the works council are elected democratically by the workforce using a specified electoral process. It is therefore advisable to seek support from the trade unions when preparing to set up a works council. You can do so by contacting your trade union or, if you are not a trade union member, the local office of the German Trade Union Confederation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund), where you will be told who you should talk to.
In addition to free legal advice and legal representation, as a trade union member you enjoy the following benefits:
- Benefits under collective agreements
Trade union members are legally entitled to the benefits established in collective agreements.
- Support in the event of industrial disputes
Members receive support in the event of strikes, lock-outs and disciplinary measures.
- Vocational development and continuing training
Seminars and further training are offered on subjects relevant to the organisation and society more widely.
- Advice and information
Information is provided free of charge (for example in the form of brochures and journals) on important and topical legal issues. It is possible to obtain individual advice.
- Special services and rates / leisure activities, accident insurance
Members of some trade unions benefit from optional special rates for insurance or trips.
A collective agreement is an agreement between a trade union and an employers’ association or an individual employer. Collective agreements cannot be concluded by a works council (Betriebsrat) or a group of employees. The collective agreement regulates the working conditions for the employment contracts to which it applies.
The working conditions regulated in collective agreements include, in particular, pay levels, working time, holiday leave, entitlement to bonuses, etc. In addition, collective agreements also contain provisions on breaks, probationary periods, notice periods and time limits for the enforcement of rights.
There are several types of collective agreement:
- Framework collective agreement (Manteltarifvertrag/Rahmentarifvertrag)
This type of agreement covers all fundamental issues relating to working time, special notice periods or the amount of holiday entitlement. A framework collective agreement sets out the pay grades for employees’ remuneration. It can also include obligations such as a requirement to hire apprentices once they have completed their vocational training.
- Regional collective agreement (Flächentarifvertrag/Verbandstarifvertrag)
This is the most common type of collective agreement in Germany. It can apply to the whole of Germany, selected Länder (federal states) or just one Land. It is limited to the region in question.
- Company agreement (Firmentarifvertrag/Haustarifvertrag)
A company agreement only applies to the company in question. In the automotive industry (for example at Volkswagen or BMW), company agreements are always negotiated.
- Sector-wide collective agreement (Branchentarifvertrag)
A sector-wide collective agreement is negotiated by the trade union and the employers’ association for the sector in question; this takes place in the chemicals industry, for example.
- Collective agreement on pay (Vergütungstarifvertrag/Entgelttarifvertrag)
This type of collective agreement sets out the amount of pay employees receive for their work. As a result, many employees also know this type of agreement as a collective agreement on wages (Lohntarifvertrag). A collective agreement on wages prevents employees being paid less than the agreed rate. Special pay components, such as a Christmas bonus, are not always covered by a collective agreement on pay. Special collective agreements are often concluded to cover these matters.