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Under God’s roof (2008) Under God’s roof (2008)

German church employees are outside the labour laws and are forbidden to strike. How do the churches justify denying employment rights? Through a theology of employment called the "third way": in church-run institutions there is so much brotherly love that any conflict of interest between employer and employee is impossible. Strikes are unnecessary and would only disturb the harmony....    

Update: In 2012 Germany's highest employment tribunal confirmed that strikes were not permitted in church institutions, so long as the unions were allowed to take part in the negotiations.

The lawyer for the unions dismissed this as window dressing: without the right to strike it isn't collective bargaining, she said, but only “collective begging”. [1]

The churches see it differently, of course. According to Pastor Günther Barenhoff, spokesman for the large Protestant charity, Diakonisches Werk, "You can't strike against God." [2] 


Under God's Roof

By Annette Jensen, excerpt from “Unter Gottes Dach”, Publik, April 2008, ver.di

In Germany the churches themselves determine the labour regulations of their employees. That’s what the Constitution says. Factory committee? Employee participation? The right to strike? No way.

Ever since the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), the Christian churches in Germany have enjoyed great privileges. The Constitution guarantees them the right to self-determination in their conditions of employment. As a result, for 1.3 million people who work in church offices, in graveyards, in day-care centres of the Diakonisches Werk, or hospitals of Caritas (the Catholic charity), the law governing industrial relations within a company (Works Constitution Act / Betriebsverfassungsgesetz) doesn’t apply — and therefore they are not allowed to elect factory committees and public employees’ staff councils (Betriebs- und Personalräte). Labour legislation conflicts, ones which may also involve more than individual workers, are under church jurisdiction.

Strikes aren't in God’s plan

Behind this lies the idea that under God’s roof there is no fundamental contradiction between the interests of the employer and employees, but rather a “service collective” (Dienstgemeinschaft) in harmony with the spirit of brotherly love and the Gospel. Therefore there are virtually no wage agreements with unions. Also the right to strike is seen by the churches as contrary to their very nature. Instead, Commissions of the Wage Agreement Law (Kommissionen des Arbeitsvertragsrecht / AVR) are formed which have equal representation of employers and employees and regulate matters of wages. It is true that in church institutions there are also elected workers’ councils. However, their position is fundamentally weaker than that of the factory committees. All this the churches call the “third way” (i.e., neither capitalist nor communist).

 Until a few years ago hardly anyone was interested in the weak legal position of the employees. Again and again this led to judgments which would not go down well with an independent-minded person. For example, the Federal Supreme Court decided that the Catholic Church could fire people because they had married a second time or had written letters to the editor in a private capacity on the topic of abortion. Yet while the churches in other respects tagged along with the wage agreements of the civil service, most of the employees saw no problem.

Things also went well for the employers. In 1961 the churches pushed through a law that let them and private agencies enjoy priority when it came “to nurse, care for, comfort and provide terminal care to people who are ill, frail and needed care”. The public health insurance paid — thus many new institutions were formed by the charities.

However, in recent years, especially in the Protestant Church, this has ended. After the state increasingly emphasised competition in care for the elderly and in hospitals, the Diakonisches Werk tried to fund a competitive advantage from providing poorer working conditions. In 1998 it introduced low wage categories for unskilled workers and apprentices. Then, by not following the new wage agreements in the civil service, the church completely disconnected itself from the public sector wage scale. Everywhere church commissions for employment law are being formed, which often draw up their own unique basis for contracts. As the ver.di Secretary, Renate Richter, describes the situation, “The fragmentation is increasing at a roaring rate.”

In many cases that means wage dumping (opting for the lowest possible wages, a form of predatory pricing). “The Diakonisches Werk is leading in the competition for the lowest wages”, says Erhard Schleizer, President of the employees’ representation of the Diakonisches Werk  in Hessen-Nassau. Outsourcing is very much in fashion. Since it was first allowed in 2004, thanks to the Hartz Laws, to employ temporary workers permanently, the institutes of the Diakonisches Werk have founded hundreds of such agencies.

The Protestant (public) corporation Agaplesion leads the way when it’s a matter of getting competitive advantages through poor working conditions. Especially blatant is the case of the senior citizens’ home Haus Saalburg in Frankfurt/Main, where, apart from the administration and nursing management, there is no longer any permanent staff at all. And even if there is an attempt in one of its subsidiaries to found a factory committee, Agaplesion does everything to prevent this. Thus the management of the Clinic Service Betriebe (CSB) issued dire warnings to employees not to hold elections. When the employees refused to let themselves be intimidated by this, the managers decided to divide the company into four parts. In this way they avoided having to release a factory committee member from work, as the law requires when there are 200 or more employees.

The discontent is growing, with the first protests since 1919: in 2007 a warning strike was staged in Stuttgart by almost 400 church employees there. Although the employers had threatened them with cautions and other sanctions — in the end they didn’t react. Also, in the meantime, the employees' representatives at Agaplesion have become well organised. According to Erhard Schleitzer, “We want equality with the law governing industrial relations within a company (Betriebsverfassungsgesetz) and wage agreements”. […]

Related articles

♦  An inside look at faith-based social services in Germany

♦  How far can German churches discriminate against 2.5 million employees?

♦  Europe tells German churches to respect employees’ private lives

♦  The German principle of "church autonomy"


1. “Bundesarbeitsgericht lockert Streikverbot in der Kirche”, Aerzteblatt, 2012-11-20
“Bundesarbeitsgericht bestätigt Streikverbot bei Kirchen: Gewerkschaften müssen in Lohnfindung eingebunden werden”, Die Welt, 2012-11-20 

2. "'Gott kann man nicht bestreiken': Kirche und Diakonie siegen vor dem Arbeitsgericht", Evangelischen Kirche von Westfalen, 2010-03-03.



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