We can shape the transformations coming our way

From being on the dole to chairperson of Hamburg's German Trade Union Confederation – up close and personal with Katja Karger

Photo: Katja Karger at the event "Are trade unions in tune with the times?", Hamburg, 22 March 2017 by FES

Female, non-partisan, young, not from Hamburg and a career from being on the dole to becoming the chairperson of Hamburg's German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) - an unusual step for the Trade Union Confederation. By the same token, Katja Karger is highly qualified for the job, as became evident at "Hamburg up close and personal!" – a discussion event organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on 22 March. This is an event featuring well-known persons in Hamburg, with the spotlight being placed on their motives and motivations, their careers and work on behalf of society. For Katja Karger, the key question is: "Are trade unions in tune with the times?"

"I grew up attending Hannes Wader concerts on May Day," is how she sums up her childhood in Bremen.* She was raised with a keen sense of justice. She studied to become an industrial clerk, then working from 1993 to 1997 as an editorial assistant at a private radio broadcaster, serving as works council member and active trade union member there. She then moved to Berlin, where she began working as project manager for the Internet agency Pixelpark AG in 1998. It was there that she established the first works council in the New Economy in 2001. Following the wave of redundancies there, she switched to the trade union project connexx.av, which organised employees in the media sector - radio, film and new media. In 2007 she enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin, finishing with a Master in cultural science from Humboldt University. The topic of her Master thesis was: "The Culture of Work".

She has been working as the first female head of the Hamburg Trade Union Confederation (DGB) since December 2013. She still devotes considerable attention to the culture of work as well as standards and values associated with gainful employment. "Notions such as occupation, vocation and work are highly charged. Shorter working times are difficult to achieve, for instance, when only those people who work at least forty hours a week receive recognition," she argues.

How has the situation of trade unions changed over the last few decades? While works councils were also still taken for granted in the media sector as recently as in the early 1990s, the situation has changed considerably since then. "We have 20 years of neo-liberal brainwashing behind us," says Karger with a view to individualisation and an erosion of solidarity. Many employees believe in conforming and being nice until they turn thirty. With works councils, however, they have completely different legal possibilities when conflicts emerge. "Trade unions are a tool to improve the working conditions of human beings."

What has changed since she has been at the helm of the German Trade Union Confederation in Hamburg? This classic trade unionist does a lot of things alone, but this is not in line with current requirements. That is why Katja Karger is making a resolute move to encourage teamwork: "You achieve more working together". Many committees continue to be dominated by males. Dealing with this fact is not only easy, she says, and she would like to bring about a marked change in the structure of committees. She says that she is sometimes singled out and sought as a female, however, for instance on issues such as working conditions of childrearers.

It is furthermore important in the eyes of Karger to bring about a cultural shift when it comes to time: she categorically rejects being available at any and all times. "I keep a close watch on my time - and my team's time."

With a view to current developments and the future of work, she sees a host of challenges and tasks for trade unions. Informing refugees about their rights in order to prevent wage dumping. Enquiring into work and working time in order to satisfy Generation Y's demands for a better work-life balance. Fostering lifelong learning and training of employees to make them fit for the future. And these are only a few of the tasks. By the same token, Katja Karger truly believes in Work 4.0: "We can shape the transformations coming our way. In most cases digitisation means a changing world of work, but not a loss of jobs."

* Hannes Wader is a German singer and song writer associated to the leftist circles in 1970s Germany and who authored and performed original as well as historical pieces on socialist resistance and oppression in Europe, Latin America and other places.

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