Oliver Burkhard, head of Germany’s IG Metall (IGM) trade union, will soon be taking over as head of personnel at the multination Thyssen Krupp. His annual income will rise to €2 million, or more than €160,000 a month, according to the World Socialist Website.
Many have accused Burkhard of being a turncoat. However, his new job is really only a change in title. Union bosses maintain a unique and opaque position in the economy, serving as the enforcers of capital by pushing their members to toe the line, accept concessions and avoid work stoppages at all costs, while at the same time portraying themselves as advocates for workers.
When the bosses want to cut the workforce or impose wage and benefits cuts, they cry poverty, insist that factory closings and outsourcing are inevitable without union concessions, and the union bosses rush off to convince their members that the end is nigh, and a few “small” concessions now will save the majority of their jobs.
It is true that the union bosses sometimes criticize the corporate bosses or complain about their treatment of the workers, but this is just part the tacit agreement between labor and management. The unions are permitted to complain and even make occasional threats so as to appear like advocates for the workers, an image that is necessary for their success as agents of the employers, so long as there aren’t any serious disruptions to production and profits.
This is true not just in Germany, but everywhere. One recent example was the occupation of the Wisconsin State House, in which the unions not only refused to support a General Strike or even protracted sickouts, but actively worked to get everyone back to work, promising an electoral fight that was completely ineffectual.
In Germany, it is not uncommon for union bosses to become personnel managers. In fact, personnel managers must be approved by the employees in charade that merely gives the impression that the workers have some say in their working conditions. While they get to vote for this “representative” in management, they do not get to vote on how they will be managed. They cannot vote to take over management of the industry themselves. They do not have the right to fire the bosses, do away with wages or end their exploitation.
While the pay is considerably higher than when he was a mere union boss, it will also be tougher for Burkhard to maintain the illusion that he is an advocate for the workers, as he will be expected to slash jobs and wages to help Thyssen Krupp recoup some of the €5 billion they lost last year. This should not be too difficult for Burkhard, however, as he brokered a deal with Opel in 2009 that forced wage cuts on its employees.