German Workers’ Councils Demystified

I’m taking on a lofty goal by trying to spell out what German Workers’ Councils or Betriebsräte are in 500 words or less, a concept that is often abstract to those of us from countries without them. If you are employed somewhere with a Betriebsrat, you should know who the members are and what they can do for you.

The Betriebsrat is a body of employees elected to represent their fellow employees of a for-profit business. These representatives serve on the Council for four-year terms. The Betriebsrat is involved in all decisions relating to employees on the individual as well as collective level.For example, in circumstances including hiring, firing, and disciplining, the human resources department has to communicate these intended measures to the Betriebsrat. At a minimum, the intent has to be communicated. At a maximum, the Council can veto the specific action which the employer was planning on taking.

On a collective level, the employer has to communicate plans to restructure a department, be it to cut down or expand personnel. They may want to contest intentions to lay off a certain amount of workers to ensure that fellow employees do not lose their jobs or else they may protest expansion to hire new employees and instead argue for existing employees to be repositioned in order to promote their professional development. The Betriebsrat is at all times aware of the company’s head count numbers.

The Betriebsrat however cannot negotiate whether or not the company can execute what the company has decided to do such as creating or eliminating a department. They can only negotiate the ‘how,’ in other the words the way they create or eliminate a department. They can delay the company from executing its decision if they have not been informed. They also negotiate what would be more socially acceptable such as ensuring that all soft measures have been tried and negotiating an optimal severance formula. For example, for an employee who will be laid off, the Council will try to negotiate a higher percentage of the gross salary that the employee would receive for a limited number of months as part of his or her severance. And what if they can’t come to agreement? Then they go into third-party mediation.

Probably one of the most fundamental concepts to grasp is how the Betriebsrat is different from the union or Gewerkschaft. Council members are employees of the company. Ideally, they are not concerned with the activities of the unions but are focused on advocating on behalf of their fellow employees. Unions are organizations that represent an industry. In other words, they represent workers of many companies rather than just one. They are predominantly focused on pay schemes.

In Germany, there are also employers’ unions. Usually, pay scales are negotiated between employee unions and employer unions. So for example, Südwest Metall, the employers’ union for the metal and electronics industry in Baden-Württemberg, will negotiate the pay scale for the members of IG Metall Baden-Württemberg, the union for metal workers. Over time this has led to differences in pay scales between federal states and industries.

When there are at least five employees in a company, employees have the guaranteed right to form. If you are an executive or leitende Angestellte, then you do not belong to the Betriebsrat and have to take your grievances to the Sprecherausschuss.

Recently a friend of mine was planning on returning to work following four years of being on maternity leave (Mutterschutz). Her employer was deliberately opaque about when she could return and in what capacity she would work. They attempted to dissolve her employment, but luckily, she contacted her company’s Betriebsrat and successfully asserted her legal rights to be placed into a position at the company where she is happily working again. So, no matter what side of the fence you are falling, don’t forget to work with the Betriebsrat to ensure smooth transitions and that nobody is being pushed around!

To go straight to the source, here is the law on Workers’ Councils. For an English version, click here.

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