Chemical industry agrees on union’s digital access rights

Work in the home office

Unions should also be able to reach workers who do not come to the factory or office every day.

(Photo: IMAGO/Wolfgang Maria Weber)

Berlin In the old working world, trade unions had many opportunities to advertise their concerns and recruit new members: an information stand in front of the factory gate, a notice on the bulletin board, shop stewards in the company. This is much more difficult in the new world of work, in which many employees work on the go or from their home office.

Trade unions have therefore long been demanding digital access rights to the company, for example to be able to reach employees who are not regularly on site via the intranet or e-mails. The federal government also has the topic on its agenda: “We are creating a modern right for trade unions to digital access to companies that corresponds to their analogous rights,” says the coalition agreement between the SPD, the Greens and the FDP.

However, the chemical collective bargaining parties did not want to wait for a legal regulation. The employers’ association BAVC and the trade union IG BCE have agreed on a social partner agreement on digital access rights in the chemical-pharmaceutical industry with its around 580,000 employees. This makes it the largest industry agreement of its kind in Germany. In May last year, an agreement was reached in the rubber industry, but it only employs around 30,000 people.

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The agreement is an “important door opener”, said IG-BCE board member Karin Erhard. “We can only make social partnership and co-determination sustainable with modern, digital communication.” BAVC Managing Director Klaus-Peter Stiller spoke of a clear signal to politics: “The social partners shape their future on their own responsibility. We don’t need legal requirements for this.”

According to the agreement, the union can fall back on communication channels that have already been set up and used, and the companies do not have to purchase new IT, as Stiller emphasized. Possible access routes are, for example, a digital bulletin board on the intranet or links to trade union information in company information systems. The union can also use existing video conferencing systems for online consultation hours or digital meetings of shop stewards.

Agreement to prevent division of the workforce

The company and the responsible organizational unit of the IG BCE regulate the specific design at operational level on site.

According to the agreement, which is available to the Handelsblatt, if the purely analogue access is retained, entire groups of employees could be excluded from union communication. This could “lead to divisions among the employees, to more difficult communication of collective bargaining results and other agreements, to information deficits and inquiries. This can increase the potential for conflict in companies.”

In the past, IG BCE had also tried to enforce a digital access right in court, and against the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas sued. The main issue in the proceedings before the Nuremberg Labor Court was the scope of the right of access, specifically the question of whether the company is obliged to provide the union with a list of the employees’ official e-mail addresses. The labor court dismissed the lawsuit, but the union plans to appeal.

>> Also read here: How much can a works council earn? Surprising court ruling worries corporations

In another case, the Bonn labor court ruled in May this year that a telecommunications company is not obliged to send emails with union information to employees if employees work from home due to corona. Although the workers’ association may – even without the employer’s consent – send e-mails to e-mail addresses known to it, it cannot expect the company to use its own resources to organize the mailing. The telecommunications provider has also already granted trade unions digital access via the intranet.

IG-BCE board member Erhard emphasized that the strong, functioning social partnership in the chemical industry made the agreement possible. In many other sectors, however, the situation is different. That is why the legislature must also act: “We need clear legal regulations that offer the trade unions a digital opportunity to exchange information about the IT systems of the companies, like the bulletin board or the tour of the company used to be.”

The German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) had in its draft for a reform of co-determination proposed amending Paragraph 2 of the Works Constitution Act to the effect that representatives of the trade unions represented in the company are to be granted access to the company at all times in order to recruit members or to inform employees. Union members should also be allowed to use the electronic communication media available in the company.

More: Minister of Labor Heil wants to take tougher action if works councils are obstructed

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