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FAQ – Trade unions

What is a trade union?

A trade union is an association of employees. They come together voluntarily to represent the interests of all trade union members vis-à-vis employers and the state. Trade unions are independent, i.e. they are not dependent on the state, political parties or churches.

Trade unions are organised democratically: There are statutes, elections for certain functions and the members have a say. The statutes are like a law and all members of the trade union must abide by them. The statutes set out the objective and structure, rights and obligations of the trade union and its members.

The tasks of a trade union

A trade union is committed to improving working conditions and representing the interests of its members. A trade union is a so-called collective bargaining party. This means that it can conclude collective agreements with the employers' association or an individual employer. To do so, it conducts collective bargaining negotiations, for example for higher wages, shorter working hours and more holiday days. The trade union can take industrial action to achieve its objectives in collective bargaining negotiations. These include the threat of strikes, so-called warning strikes and actual strikes.

Trade unions in Germany are organised by sector or industry. Eight trade unions have joined forces to form the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). The DGB does political work for the trade unions. It fights to improve working conditions in Germany.

What advantages do you have as a trade union member?

If you join a trade union, it will support you. Trade unions, for example, offer:

  • Free advice and information about rights under collective agreements, unemployment claims and company pension schemes.
  • Support in the event of a dispute with the employer
  • Free legal advice and free legal protection (for example, also in the event of a dispute with the employers' liability insurance association or with pension, health, nursing care or unemployment insurance)
  • Seminars for qualification and further training on occupational and socio-political topics for members
  • Strike pay in the event of strikes (if the employer does not pay wages due to the strike)

Please note: you usually won’t receive legal representation from the trade union in the first three months of your union membership.

Only as a trade union member can you claim holiday pay and Christmas bonuses, among other things, in court, as you are entitled to them. If you are not a member, you do not have this entitlement, instead you are dependent on your employer granting you the collectively agreed benefits (exception: generally binding collective agreement). The more members a trade union has, the greater its political influence.

How much does membership in a trade union cost?

When you become a member of a trade union, you pay a membership fee. This is deducted from your gross pay. The amount depends on the trade union. People with no income, pensioners and students pay a lower amount. You can deduct the membership fee from your income tax under "Werbungskosten” (advertising expenses). These are all the costs associated with getting your money. So you get the amount back on your tax return.

How can you become a member of a trade union?

If you want to join a trade union, the first thing you need to know is which trade union is relevant to your profession. This is because trade unions are organised by sector or industry. If you are unsure which trade union matches your profession and industry, you can enquire directly with the trade union itself. To become a member, you have to fill out a form, sign it and hand it in.

You can also do this online, for example: http://www.dgb.de/service/mitglied-werden


What is a collective agreement and who can conclude one?

A collective agreement can only be concluded by collective bargaining parties. Collective bargaining parties are trade unions, employers' associations or individual employers.

There are different types of collective agreements:

  • Company collective agreements are agreements between a company and the trade union.
  • Sectoral collective agreements are agreements between the employers' association and the trade union of a specific sector. They regulate the working conditions of this sector in a particular federal state and are therefore also known as regional collective agreements.
  • General collective agreements: agreements between the employers' association and the trade union. They regulate longer-term, more general provisions: for example, termination/dismissal conditions, length of holidays, sick leave
  • Framework collective agreements: regulate the wage and salary groups of employees
  • Collective wage/salary agreements: regulate pay for a specific company or for a specific sector in a specific federal state.
  • Collective wage framework agreements: description of job and qualification characteristics for the wage and salary groups and the criteria for categorisation.
  • Generally binding collective agreements apply to a specific sector throughout Germany. All employers in the sector in Germany must comply with these collective agreements. The employer does not have to be a member of an employers' organisation and the employee does not have to be a member of the trade union.
In which sectors or industries do generally binding collective agreements apply?

Generally binding collective agreements apply in the following sectors:

  • Vocational training and further training services in accordance with Book II or Book III of the German Social Code
  • Construction industry
  • Roofing trade
  • Electrical trade
  • Building cleaning
  • Painting and varnishing
  • Nursing
  • Chimney sweepers
  • Stonemasonry and stone carving
  • Temporary employment industry

These generally binding collective agreements also stipulate the industry-specific minimum wages that apply to all employers and all employees in the respective industry throughout Germany.

Here you can find an up-to-date overview of the industry-specific minimum wages: 

www.zoll.de > Privatpersonen > Arbeit > Übersicht Branchen-Mindestlöhne