The strangest thing I saw this year is a YouTube video, with a hip-hop soundtrack, about a lot of German kids on strike. These were IG Metall apprentices, and they weren’t like the kids in the cafés. (IG Metall is the largest metal workers’ union in Germany.) Instead they wore black, gray and white car coats and were from obscure little German towns, but all of them were marching, at night, both boys and girls, striking against the big global companies for not delivering on jobs. At about the same time as the strike, IG Metall held a rock concert with Bob Geldof, which drew 50,000 people, mostly kids. Here’s a shocking thing to a U.S. labor lawyer like me: In 2008, youth membership in IG Metall — kids under 27 who voluntarily pay union dues — climbed yet again, this time by 6 percent. At last count, IG Metall had more than 200,000 of these kids! As someone who ran for Congress and found out why campaign staffs think it a waste of time to bother with young people, I find that stunning. Even the Financial Times, which always writes off labor, has had to admit that in Germany, unions are resurging among kids who are highly skilled.
Why are kids in Germany paying dues, voluntarily?
I think it’s an American who can best explain why. It’s not Marx but John Dewey whose picture should be in the lobby of the Willy Brandt Haus, the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party. It’s Dewey who believed that schools should not just teach practical skills but explain why kids have to be political, to be citizens and yes, to get into labor movements to protect the skills they are acquiring. One can say that union membership is a “tradition” in certain industries. But that’s just an opaque way of saying that the kids get politicized both at home and at school as they go through the Dual Track — Germany’s specialized, apprenticeship vocational schools.
The answer to the problems of our country is education, but not the kind we’re pursuing, i.e., jamming more kids into college or even teaching practical skills; instead, it’s teaching them how, politically, to cut themselves a better deal. As long as that’s going on, it’s impossible to write off the European or, more specifically, the German model.
Just as the answer to the problems of democracy is usually more democracy, so the answer to the problems of a social democracy is usually more social democracy.
He could not be more precisely correct.