The Context

Trade unions concentrate on preserving and expanding jobs, while businesses concentrate on reducing expenses, including labor costs, and maximizing profits.  This is to state the obvious, and an equally obvious conflict presents itself between the goals of each.

Increasingly, however, both labor and business are now including climate change considerations in their economic calculations and political strategies.  A window into this issue within the trade union movement was offered by Reiner Hoffmann, Chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation DGB, at a recent talk (21 Sept 2018) at the New School for Social Research in New York City on “Climate Change: The Challenges for Labor.”

The DGB Confederation is the umbrella organization for eight German trade unions and it represents about 5.9 million workers.  The members include workers in a wide variety of sectors including:  mining, iron and steel, chemicals, glass, energy, agriculture, food and beverages, police, railway and transport, automotive, public and civil service.   Like elsewhere there has been a decline in union members as the DGB numbered 11 million members in 1991.  Nevertheless, the trade union movement represents a sizeable and influential segment of society and it has much to offer in organizing or supporting climate change actions.

Trade Unions and Climate Change in Germany

Since at least the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, trade unions have been active in supporting sustainable development and over the years they have formed blue-green alliances with environmental groups.  Currently the rallying cry of “sustainable development” has been translated into “Just Transition” to reflect the recognition that the labor market and community is undergoing a structural transition as a result of climate change.

Critical for the trade unions is the reality that the share of industry in GDP is 26.1% in Germany in contrast to the European Union at 19.6% and to the UK at 14%, almost half of Germany’s.  And the energy sector, of course, is critical in turn for industry.   Not so surprising then is that the German trade union movement leans toward the traditional role of working with industry/business to strike the best deal for labor without confronting the basic tenets of capitalism.  Other trade unions take the position that public and social ownership of key economic sectors are necessary to undercut many of the regressive features of capitalism.

While important to the GDP and jobs, at the same time industry and energy accounted for total emissions of 535 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2014 in comparison to 320 million tons for buildings and transport.   Indeed Germany is likely to miss its EU obligations to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020 and by 2030, in part because of the high emissions from industry and energy.

Hoffmann also pointed out how there is an evolving structural change in the energy sector.  In 1995, about 96,000 were employed in hard coal mining and 42,000 in lignite mining, while by 2016 hard coal workers were down to 8,000 and lignite workers to 13,000, a total loss of 117,000 jobs.

In contrast, employment in the Renewable Energy (RE) sector has grown significantly, and RE accounts for about one-third of electricity generation in Germany.  In 2000 there were 105,130 workers in all forms of RE (wind, biomass, solar, hydro and geothermal), and by 2010 there were 390,844 with a slight drop to 338,594 in 2016.  So between 1995-2000 and 2016 there was a gain of 233,464 jobs in RE and a loss of 117,000 in coal mining.  Of course, those who lost their jobs in coal were not always, if even often, able to shift careers, either because of lack of skills or inability to move to distant regions.




The shift in the structure of the energy sector certainly signaled a major transformation not lost on labor or business.  Climate change and commitments by Germany, and the EU generally, to take mitigation actions is having a significant impact on what kinds of jobs (and business opportunities) there will be in the near and far future.

Hoffmann also discussed working conditions in the RE sector, which do not tell as good a story as the employment numbers.  In terms of collective bargaining agreements, there are 100% in the metal and electrical industry, 81% in wind industry and 67% in photovoltaics.   Moreover, salaries in the RE industry are lower than in metal and electrical industries, and employees in RE work more than 40 hours a week.  These RE workers identify with their work, yet only 20% can imagine working at their current company until their retirement.  This last issue of longevity would seem to be a weakness typical of most jobs these days.  Finally, Hoffmann reported a compliance with high standards of work safety in RE.  One assumes that RE workers enjoy a much healthier environment than coal miners.  This is not to suggest that healthier working conditions should serve as a rationale for suppressing wages in RE.

Hoffmann did not offer any reasons for why there was lower trade union participation or lower wages in the RE sector, although one could imagine it may be in part because it is a young, still developing sector.

Labor’s Just Transition, in Hoffmann‘s presentation, includes “Decreasing the dependency on fossil fuels and imports” and “Environmental and climate protection,” yet there is no mention of climate change on the DGB website as one of its Fields of Work.  Moreover, only one of the members of DGB is a member of the German Climate Alliance, which includes environmental NGOs, fair trade organisations, churches and banks.

We should not be surprised by this apparent weakness in support for climate change actions as DGB includes unions with different, sometimes conflicting, interests.  The auto workers would likely have different views on certain climate change actions from those of workers in the RE sector.  The coal workers union, especially in eastern Germany, is actively pushing against the Merkel government’s attempts to cut reliance on coal.

Hoffmann’s challenge is to balance any such conflicting interests in light of his quoted charge that “On a dead planet, there are no jobs.”  He stressed that for trade unions to be effective he needed to make conflicts with other stakeholders as transparent as possible, and then to work through the conflicts with stakeholders.  Two useful examples were raised.








In one, Hoffmann organised meetings between auto and industrial trade unionists and environmentalists.  The auto workers explained how they had proposed to their company management to build solar panels on the roof of the plant to provide RE.  When the management refused, the workers organised a cooperative to raise the investments necessary and to manage the installation of the solar roof.  Around the same time, coal miners were brought together to meet environmentalists and when they learned of the auto workers’ solar roof project they acknowledged that their coal mining jobs would be finished in a matter of a few years but they now saw that they could replace the extensive coal mines with solar farms and that, if necessary, they could raise the investment and manage the project through a cooperative of miners.

More instances of such worker initiatives for addressing climate change would have been welcomed.

Workers’ cooperatives to organize, own and operate energy projects reflect similar efforts by local communities in Ireland and elsewhere to own and operate wind farms.  Shared interests between labor unions and local communities could be a powerful force to control the means of renewable energy production for the benefit of the local workers and community members, and for the benefit of the planet.


Reiner Hoffmann, “Climate Change: The Challenges for Labor,” The New School for Social Research Economics of Climate Change  (the powerpoint);  for a video of Hoffmann’s presentation, with questions and answers, see

Birgit Kraemer, “Germany: Trade unions’ approach to climate change policies,” European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) (30 January 2018)

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, Climate Change and The Great Inaction: New Trade Union Perspectives (January 2014).

Melissa Eddy, “Why ‘Green’ Germany Remains Addicted to Coal,” The New York Times (10 Oct 2018).

See “Just Transition” in iePEDIA section of irish environment magazine (November 2018).



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