Alrun Fischer

Alrun Fischer Beratung

Fighting union busting

How do employees respond to management strategies against works councils and trade unions?

Oliver Thünken, Chemnitz University of Technology
Alrun Fischer, Alrun Fischer Beratung
Markus Hertwig, Chemnitz University of Technology
Daniel Menning, Chemnitz University of Technology

In recent years, there are increasing reports about union busting activities in German private sector companies (Behrens/Dribbusch 2018). Many cases have been documented in scientific research and public debate where employers or managers seek to hinder employee participation or undermine co-determination rights that are granted, in particular, by German labour law, the Works Constitution Act (Betriebsverfassungsgesetz). Union busting shows up in efforts, for instance, to prevent the election of a works council, to hinder the functioning of elected works councils or to agitate against trade unions and avoid collective bargaining (Rügemer/Wigand 2014; see also Artus et al. 2016). Those activities of union busting are by no means really new (see Bormann 2007). However, several studies and reports indicate that the “quality” of union busting in Germany has changed, that is, employers or managers exert intensive pressure on activists or works council members; they chose apparently illegal practices, which often are dealt with in courts; moreover, employers seek the support of specialized consulting firms, lawyers or employer associations to put union busting into practice.

While there has been already some research concerning the practices of union busting in Germany, little regard has been paid to the (counter-) strategies of the employee side. How do employees react to union busting methods? Which strategies do works councils chose to fight pressures from employers and managers? How effective are different strategies in diverse social settings? Those employee-side strategies are at the centre of the paper proposal outlined here.

The empirical basis stems from a research project that is currently funded by the Hans-Boeckler-Foundation (3/2018 until 9/2019) and carried out at Chemnitz University of Technology in cooperation with AFB/Beratung für Betriebsräte, Dresden, Germany. During the project, more than 25 case studies are being conducted in different sectors, in which union busting is found to be virulent. In each case, interviews are being conducted with works council members and the respective local trade union officials. Furthermore, expert interviews have been conducted with lawyers and trade union officials (ca. 50 interviews).

The research shows that union busting differs sharply in terms of intensity, motivations and tactics chosen by management. Some strategies aim at preventing the election of a works council, some seek to hinder the effective functioning of an existing works council, while others are directed against individual works council members; another set of strategies is used by employers to prevent collective bargaining. In many cases, attempts to establish a works council or to become more active are triggered by bad working conditions or managerial arbitrariness. Despite different motivations of union busting, employer strategies clearly differ concerning their intensity.

At the same time, we find a variety of patterns of employee reactions. While there are works councils or workforces that use a large range of strategies to fight union busting, others settle for only a restricted number of activities. Many works councils seek juridical support and advice from trade unions; others stick to media campaigns. What appears to be a crucial success factor is whether a works council or a works council initiative is backed by the workforce and whether activists is strong and durable enough to withstand the hostility from management (and sometimes from parts of the workforce).


  • Artus, I.; Kraetsch, C.; Röbenack, S. (2016): Betriebsratsgründungen. Typische Phasen, Varianten und Probleme, in: WSI-Mitteilungen 69(3), S. 183-191.
  • Behrens, M./Dribbusch, H. (2018): Employer Resistance to Works Councils: Evidence from Surveys amongst Trade Unions, in: German Politics (Online First).
  • Bormann, S. (2007): Angriff auf die Mitbestimmung. Unternehmensstrategien gegen Be-triebsräte - der Fall Schlecker. Berlin.
  • Rügemer, W.; Wigand, E. (2014): Die Fertgimacher. Arbeitsunrecht und professionelle Gewerkschaftsbekämpfung. Köln.


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