The DGB is the political umbrella organization of the German trade unions and is the voice of working people in Germany. It unites and represents the interests of its unions and their members to politicians and other organizations at all levels: from local government to European and international bodies.
As a political umbrella organization, the DGB is not involved in collective bargaining, does not organize strikes, and does not engage in union activities in workplaces; this work is carried out by its member unions.
As enshrined in its constitution, the DGB represents the societal, economic, social, and cultural interests of workers. It also lobbies for:
The DGB and its member unions are committed to the principles of a “general trade union”. This means they have no affiliations relating to religion, belief, ideology, and party politics, and unite workers regardless of their industry, employment relationship, political views, or beliefs.
The principle of “one company, one union” also generally applies. In practice, this means that all employees within a company usually fall within the remit of just one union – the one that represents the company’s main business. An example: workers at an automobile garage chain are members of IG Metall – regardless of whether they are employed as mechanics, salespersons, accountants, security staff, or cleaning staff.
The principle of a general trade union arose from the mistakes made by the German trade unions under the National Socialist dictatorship of the 1930s and 40s. On May 2, 1933, shortly after seizing power, the Nazis stormed the trade union headquarters of the Free Trade Unions. These unions were dissolved and many unionists were arrested, tortured, interned in concentration camps, and murdered by the Nazis. One key reason why the unions could not take more coordinated action to resist being crushed at the time was the split in the trade union movement that saw members affiliated on the basis of politics or beliefs – creating social democratic, communist, Christian, and liberal trade unions. The leading unionist and resistance fighter Wilhelm Leuschner, who was a member of the group that attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944 (“Operation Valkyrie”), sent German trade unionists a call-to-arms one day before the Nazis executed him: “Create the unity!” – an entreaty to rebuild the free, democratic trade unions together and regardless of political and religious differences as a general trade union.
Leuschner’s wish came true on March 18, 1945: in Aachen, which had already been liberated by the U.S. army, 80 unionists founded the “Free German Trade Union Federation” – almost two months before the ending of hostilities. These 80 unionists included socialist democrats, Christians, and communists, and their courage marked the first step on the road to a unified labor movement.
In Germany, the trade unions and employer associations are termed “social partners”. In addition to setting wages and other income-related and working conditions in the process of collective bargaining, the social partners in Germany are involved in many other public functions, on public bodies, and in political decision-making processes. This form of negotiation and cooperation in economic and societal issues is the social partnership in Germany. A couple of examples: