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Digitale Transformation

Fear of change involves the danger of social backwardness

Christiane Benner, Vice-President of the IG Metall labor union, shares her views on unions in an age of digitization, on the challenges facing employers and governments, and on new work models.

01 Feb. 2018
Christiane Benner IG Metall

In this interview the Vice-President of the IG Metall labor union Christiane Benner reveals how some of the many prejudices digital natives appear to have against trade unions may in fact be false.

Ms. Benner, are German labor unions prepared for the digitization of the labor market – or is this still new territory?

Well, I wasn't the one who coined the term “new territory” for digitization. After all, we’ve been dealing with digitization for a long time: Our works councils pass along the latest developments at their companies to us, and we always need to respond quickly. Our motto: We help shape digitization.

This ranges from contractual agreements on agile work to the digital strategies of major corporations, which we actively influence as members of their supervisory boards.

Does the digital world still need unions? After all, the digital workforce is generally young, changes workplaces often, goes abroad, etc.

But yes, big time! Young people especially have high expectations when it comes to the quality of their workplaces and the compatibility of work and private life. When we negotiate agreements in line with their life expectations, we get a great reception from young workers.

This has been confirmed by the positive reactions, for example, to agreements we’ve reached on mobile work. Young people, more and more of them highly qualified, are joining IG Metall in large numbers.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of digitization in the workplace?

First of all, the organization of work is changing. New forms of work, for example agile working, have to be developed together with the actual workers if they’re to be successful. Secondly, processes like shared services are shunting traditional administrative tasks off to the workers. We need to ensure that the working hours of project workers don’t become inflated due to things like travel expense accounting and standardized project documentation.

Thirdly and centrally, business models are changing. Mobility concepts for instance are going to be sold instead of just cars. For this, companies need to have digital strategies – but according to recent studies, only a third of them actually do.

Digital transformation is currently the buzzword at many companies. What does IG Metall aim to contribute to this process?

I believe it is urgently necessary for employers to formulate a strategy for digital transformation. What consequences will digitization have for a company – all the way up to each and every employee!

IG Metall has initiated various model projects for this purpose. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, company maps allow us to get a highly practical view of the level of qualification the respective employees have and where further training is required. At the same time, we involve employees in a discussion of what things are going to change as a result of digitization in the workplace. This also creates trust.

What impact is the process of digital transformation having on IG Metall itself?

We’ve introduced a comprehensive customer relationship management system to provide even better support to our members. Our mass communications are also becoming increasingly digitized. For the future, I am hoping that the work in IG Metall will also become more agile in a few areas. Particularly when it comes to developing new approaches, we come up against work structures based on a traditional, association-style hierarchy. I am actively promoting a change of culture in this sphere.

At CEBIT you’ll be speaking at the Future Work Forum. What is your message for the IT elites attending there?

We mustn’t allow fear of change to result in social backwardness. It is the joint task of government, employers and labor unions to provide people with confidence in the future. This will succeed if we take a forward-looking approach to digitization, involve employees and jointly mitigate the negative economic consequences of digitization.

Cold rationalization measures, on the other hand, lead to personal tragedies and are a threat to our social cohesion.

One last question: Do you consider digitization to be more of an opportunity, or more of a danger?

It depends on what we make of it. If we use digitization to replace, for example, heavy work that is hazardous to health by using machines, this is positive. I also like constant companions like digital apps – I, for example, use a fitness app.

What I reject, however, is total control right down to the capillaries of people’s own personal lifestyles. Fitness apps for your own personal use, yes. But as a mandatory requirement for being able to obtain health insurance, I reject it.