Thorben Albrecht, Policy Director of IG Metall, the German metalworkers’ trade union, talked to us about technological progress and the workplace of tomorrow. Not every task is equal – and this fact is posing new challenges for companies. After all, as Albrecht says, social progress is also linked to power.

Unions typically issue warnings whenever technological progress is on the table, whereas you are keen to highlight the potential it offers. What is the truth of the matter?

The question is often framed as “How will we work in future?” Instead, we should be asking “How do we want to work?” Technological progress is a powerful external factor. Although there have been examples of countermovements in the past, progress is what enabled the eight-hour working day and, later, the five-day rather than six-day working week – by increasing productivity. There can be no doubt that there is a correlation between these freedoms and technological progress. However, the question of whether technological progress really results in social progress is always a question of power, too. As such, the role of the unions cannot be overestimated.

Social progress is also a question of power.

What will be the impact of climate change and the demise of the combustion engine?

First of all, it is important that we do not treat decarbonisation as a closed book, and that we engage in an honest discussion of its consequences. It is true that a combustion engine is more complex than an electric motor. However, the abstract economic argument that the number of jobs remains the same when new jobs are created elsewhere does little to help the individual employee. In other words, the challenge lies in the fact that ways of life cannot be changed altogether. Someone who assembles pistons is likely to be unwilling or unable to swiftly retrain as a nurse. This is why we have to identify the conditions under which employees can realistically change jobs if necessary. In doing so, we also need to ensure that jobs in other areas are actually available by bringing new industrial segments to Germany, such as battery production.

The new coalition government says it wants to “dare more progress”. Do you have the impression that it is starting out with the necessary courage?

The government has the courage to do things differently to its predecessor. Even if we feel that things are not yet going far enough in some areas. For example, it is good that the government is being open about the fact that transitioning from fossil to electrical fuels will require massive expansion in the field of renewable energies. We are also seeing that the government is taking action, rather than just passing a few laws and leaving the market to do the rest. Eliminating the EEG levy, redesigning the energy market and promoting hydrogen and batteries are just some of the examples in areas that are relevant to us.

So what is still missing?

Nowadays, change in companies is often demanded and driven by employees, not by management. Employees’ expertise and creativity could be harnessed to develop new concepts and solutions far more effectively than it is now. The coalition agreement could have included far more opportunities for employee participation.

Two years on from the outbreak of the pandemic, what is your conclusion as far as the workplace of tomorrow is concerned?

The pandemic has destroyed a number of dogmatic beliefs, such as prejudice towards mobile work. This has made it a driver of digitalisation. However, the pandemic has also illustrated the limits of digital work. Creative processes simply work better when people come together in the same physical space. We also need to carefully scrutinise far-reaching ideas, such as even greater outsourcing. After all, when the physical location of a workplace is unimportant, the only difference between Brandenburg and India is one of cost. We must pay very close attention to this.

What new issues have emerged from the pandemic from an employee perspective?

Occupational safety is one example. Many people are now doing a lot of their work at the kitchen table or in their spare bedroom. This can lead to back pain if they do not have a proper desk. However, it is also leading to changed demands in terms of workplace flexibility, and these new opportunities are not available to everyone equally. If you work at a furnace, you can’t put it in your own kitchen – whereas administrative tasks can be performed at home. Dealing with these imbalances is and will remain a challenge for companies.

Someone who assembles pistons is likely to be unwilling or unable to swiftly retrain as a nurse.

It requires increased employee codetermination when it comes to shaping progress. Is innovation really fostered by adding more steps to the decision-making progress?

The introduction of new technologies is doomed to failure unless employees are not systematically included in the process. Starting all over again after such a failure is time-consuming and tends to prevent progress. By contrast, codetermination helps to significantly reduce the risk of failure. Of course, occasional disagreements with the works council are inevitable – but works councils are generally willing and able to make quick decisions and provide the necessary support. However, this depends to a large extent on the quality of cooperation: the more level the playing field, the better.

What can politics do to support this cooperation?

Expertise on both sides is essential. Nowadays, works councils have to commission external experts to support them in each individual case. If the works council had the right to permanent support from external experts when it comes to digitalisation issues, this could make things significantly quicker, as it would help the parties involved to engage with the topics more effectively in the long term.

To what extent is the union movement fit for the future?

Continuous change and support for progress have always been among the core tasks performed by unions. If we had failed to move with the times, we would no longer exist. At a macroeconomic level, we have not seen any further shifts from blue-collar to white-collar work since 2008. However, we both need and want to grow in the area of salaried employees. We will achieve this by focusing on new companies and new industries.

The difference between Brandenburg and India should not be solely one of cost.

What role do women play at IG Metall?

The nature of our industry means that our membership includes fewer women. This is why we take care to ensure that women are well represented among our union officials. Women play a bigger role in our organisation than in the industry as a whole. This is extremely important when it comes to attracting new members.

How relevant is the war in Ukraine for IG Metall?

Our companies are feeling the direct impact of the sanctions. Supply chains have also been affected, and there is still no way of knowing whether and to what extent economic cooperation with Russia will continue in the shorter and longer term. Nevertheless, we expressly support the sanctions and condemn the aggression in the very strongest terms. We are also actively supporting unions in Ukraine and refugees here in Germany.

The interview was conducted by Verena Gathmann and Daniel Flohr.

Thorben Albrecht is a member of the IG Metall Executive Board with responsibility for general policy matters and social policy. He was previously the Federal Chairman of the Social Democratic Party and served as State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs under Andrea Nahles from 2014 to 2018. His responsibilities in this role included overseeing the introduction of the statutory minimum wage and the “Work 4.0” dialogue on the future of work. In recognition of his expertise in digital transformation and the workplace of tomorrow, he was appointed to the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work in 2017.