Berthold Huber: “We need a democratically elected European government”

Huber and Merkel

The International Metalworkers’ Federation is Germany’s largest union–and the world’s, apart from China–with 2.3 million members in the metal sector. And Berthold Huber has been its president for five years now.

Huber, who is also a member of the supervisory board of Audi, Siemens, Porsche and Volkswagen, is convinced of the important role of co-management in German companies, which allows employees to have a role in the direction and management of the company.

As head of the largest union in his country, he is concerned that German companies are not sufficiently prepared for a new crisis. He defends the tools used by Berlin in 2008 to protect jobs: reduced working hours and incentives to increase vehicle sales. “We should extend to two years the regulation of reduced working hours because of decreasing sales (currently it’s only six months) and extend it to temporary workers.”

A few days ago, Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler said that he would take speculators to court for “crimes against humanity”. How can unions change the economic fabric for a better society?

The problem is not individual greed but certain structures that on one hand reward greed and, on the other hand, can cause a huge damage. That is why we are for regulation of financial markets to prevent rampant and unlimited speculation.

On the other hand, companies have co-determination, which is the tool that allows us to influence business decisions. Such pricing policies and business create safety for workers and allow them to appreciate their jobs. In other words, this type of management in companies is part of the necessary structures to prevent greed from prevailing in social structures.

On the occasion of the demonstration called by Spanish unions UGT and CCOO last September, you declared your solidarity with the Spanish workers “who are fighting for a social Europe”…

Our European dream is and will be a united Europe without borders and with a peaceful common future, social security and economic and social welfare. But these days experience teaches us that the dream is not achieved only by dreaming about it. I mean that to achieve the European dream, we must work and fight with determination. And that dream has nothing to do with the free movement of capital and a free self-service system for international financial capitalism.

Europe cannot be a community that benefits only the banks, it has to protect its citizens. The Europe for which we fought means a better life and work for all citizens. For all these reasons we maintain a close relationship with the Spanish unions and support one another in our efforts to a social Europe.

Is Angela Merkel’s government wrong? Don’t you think that the combination of the crisis and the austerity measures designed by Germany will generate further economic imbalances and inequalities in Europe?

A policy based only on savings has dire consequences for the industry and employment. It might also end up destroying the same social state. The consolidation of the economy can only function if the economy grows, too. That is why Europe needs to invest in industries that can grow. That would reduce the imbalances.

What future do you see for the welfare state–social rights, protection against dismissal, and so on–after the crisis?

The welfare state does not only cover the social risks of citizens but it is also a key factor of economic stability. The fact that it is only seen as a burden and as a cost factor is a big problem, precisely now when we see that the welfare state can stabilize economic demand and generate social consensus. Incidentally, this is also our experience in Germany: we overcame the crisis between 2008 and 2010. So I am convinced that the welfare state has a great future, even after the crisis.

You have spoken in favor of a Marshall Plan for activating growth in southern Europe. Who would fund a project like that? Would the Germans be willing to put their part?

European countries can only emerge from the crisis with competitive industries. Any other formula is not viable in the long term. That means we must invest in training, qualification, research and infrastructure. To finance that we first need a European economic government democratically controlled.

We also need a new system of compensation for these charges. We will have to create a fair tax system, in which large fortunes also do their part to overcome this crisis. That would be the alternative to the current policy based solely on austerity. In the same time it would buy time to find a way out from the crisis.

In Germany we see that, despite the strong demand for skilled workers, one in four employees works in precarious and low-paid jobs. Your union seeks a reform in the labor market to give dignity back to workers. How?

Work has to go become something more than an occupation that ensures only pure existence. Of course, pay is important. But it’s not all. Work is a precondition, is what allows people to demand their rights and fulfil their obligations.

Good work brings self-esteem and provides a source of recognition and realization. We therefore need a new labor policy. What does that mean? Reducing precarious work, introducing a minimum wage in Germany and delete temporary contracts unsubstantiated. But we also need to stabilize the wage system.

You stated that many German companies are not ready to face a new crisis. Why?

Many companies are not prepared to deal with all possible scenarios and contingencies. From 2010 till now German industry has made great business and has recorded excellent benefits. Many companies thought this was going to go on forever. But capitalism’s current simulator is much more susceptible against large crisis. That is also one of the consequences of uncontrolled financial markets, blind to the long-term.

As a member of several supervisory boards of large German companies I have asked many people lately how much the next crisis could last. And I do not get any clear answer. I’ve also asked about the impact that a new crisis could have on employees and demand. Here again, I haven’t received a clear answer either. But in an increasingly volatile and unstable economy like ours, that’s what I expect from company’s managers: clear answers.

About the Author

Lidia Conde
She studied journalism at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Since 1991, Lidia lives and works in Germany as a correspondent for several Spanish newspapers, in which she has covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification. Seeking an answer to how Europe could become competitive and fair, too.

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