It’s not a “workers’ council.” The word “works” here means “factory” or “facility.” In English we use the word in names like the Bath Iron Works, a big shipbuilding facility in Maine.
Works councils were established in Germany through a 1920 law, specifically as an alternative to the workers’ councils that had sprung up in many factories after World War I. Workers attempted to take direct democratic control of the plants through the workers’ councils, on their way to a revolution that would take over the government. That uprising was thwarted.
The works councils, then, were the German government’s attempt at pacifying militant workers. There were mass demonstrations by workers who opposed the works councils law, charging it would hinder workers’ independent organization. Forty-two were killed by police and a state of emergency was declared, but the law went into effect.
The works councils were abolished by the Nazis but reinstated after World War II under the military government of the United States and its allies.
Today, German works councils are elected by all non-management employees of an enterprise, blue-collar and white-collar. In an auto plant, the union, IG Metall, will put forward a slate of candidates, and most workers will vote for it. By law, the works council is independent of the union, but most members of the works council are union members, together with a few representatives of “confidential employees.”
The council’s explicit charge is to work for the interests of both workers and company. Members must keep “the peace in the establishment.” They may not lead a strike. Their job is to find non-conflictual ways of dealing with new technologies, reorganization of jobs, and plant closings, and they bargain with management over these issues.
But worker representation is actually split into two parts. While the works council deals with shop floor issues, bargaining over wages is done at the industry level by the union, with, in the past, one standard wage pattern for an industry.
Since the 1980s, though, union standards have been weakened as works councils very often have accepted management’s plans for lean production and permitted management to play off workers in different workplaces against each other.
Works councils’ legal obligation to cooperate with the management of their own company was a solid foundation for such whipsawing, and works councils backed the opening of industry-wide contracts to allow company-specific concessions on wages and hours.
A WORKS COUNCIL AT GM
Wolfgang Schaumberg was a works council member in GM’s Opel plant in Bochum, Germany, for 25 years. He was elected on a slate running in opposition to the official union slate.
He gives an example of how the works council worked alongside the union contract: The IG Metall national agreement of 1984 reduced the work week to 35 hours, to be achieved over the course of 11 years. How to set up the new time off was the task of the works council at each plant. In the Bochum plant in 1995, the majority of the works council, and GM management, wanted to keep working eight hours a day but take days off during the year. But opposition members on the works council organized a rank-and-file vote, which resulted in a work day of 7.5 hours, 37.5 a week, with the rest of the reduction in days off.
As head of the council’s dismissals committee, it was Schaumberg’s job to bargain with management to defend fired workers. His description of a typical day sounds much like that of a full-time shop floor union rep in the U.S.: meetings with management, talking with workers about what the works council can and cannot do.
While right-wing works council members made a priority of their charge to work for the good of the company, opposition members like Schaumberg would organize collective actions like coming together to the works council office to press their demands or grievances; “we often stayed in or in front of the office longer than the break time,” he said.
Much like union shop floor reps, “it depends on their political position how works council members use their rights and their possibility to be free from work all the day,” Schaumberg noted—and even a righteous member has to be careful not to get too cozy. “The job of works council members is dangerous: you get lots of privileges.”
Thanks to Wolfgang Schaumberg and Boy Lüthje of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt for help on understanding works councils.