Migrant Knowledge

Trade Union Knowledge and Educational Programs for Yugoslavian Workers in West Germany, 1970s–1980s

West Germany experienced rapid social and cultural transformations in conjunction with the approximately 2.5 million migrant workers and accompanying family members who arrived from Mediterranean countries by the early 1970s. While Turks comprised a clear majority of these immigrants, Yugoslavs were the second-largest group, ahead of migrants from Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal.1 From the early 1960s, German trade unions were among the first actors that tried to incorporate immigrant workers from these various nations into their institutional structures. The German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) was a pioneer in offering language classes and special counseling, but the affiliated Industrial Union of Metalworkers (IG Metall) proved to be a particularly eager actor when it came to recruiting and training immigrants.2

By the mid-1960s, trade unions had attracted a decent number of Spanish and Italian workers, but the organizations remained comparatively unpopular among Yugoslavians. This only started to change in 1968, when the governments of Yugoslavia and West Germany reached a recruitment agreement, followed in 1970 by IG Metall’s establishment of close ties with its Yugoslav counterpart. Already by 1969, the union had begun to publish a Serbo-Croatian weekly and had started to establish special training classes for workers from Yugoslavia.3 With the schedules of the seminars as well as handwritten answers to the exercises almost fully archived, it is possible to gain insight into two competing forms of knowledge that had to be negotiated in the seminars: the rather narrow spectrum of “trade union knowledge” that IG Metall deemed important for their non-German members, on the one hand, and participants’ actual needs and experiences, on the other hand.

IG Metall and the Dissemination of Trade Union Knowledge

Taking place for one and later two weeks every month, courses for union representatives brought together fifteen to twenty participants from all parts of the country until 1992. At first, speakers and experts were mainly German (one exception being an Italian union representative with a Dalmatian background who could speak Croatian); however, Yugoslav colleagues gradually took over the classes at a quite early stage. In late 1970, the IG Metall executive board hired three “proven” and “experienced” Yugoslav workers with a good command of both Serbo-Croatian and German. In order to strengthen ties between Yugoslav workers and IG Metall at both the federal and the local level, the new hires became official representatives of the union in charge of attracting new members, which they did quite successfully, and organizing the seminars.4

To the surprise of the organizers and in stark contrast to the seemingly more politically conscious Italian, Spanish, and Greek workers, most of the Yugoslav participants were rather unfamiliar with what the others considered requisite basic knowledge for each union member, such as labor agreements, net wages, or the role of workers councils in Germany. Therefore, union officials deemed it particularly important to introduce them to the social security system as well as to their rights and entitlements in Germany. Besides manifesting such “empowering” concerns, recruiting and campaigning among migrants from Yugoslavia exhibited rather instrumental dimensions. For instance, Yugoslav workers were supposed to be convinced to refrain from irregular activities or “illegal immigration” and instead to put their trust in IG Metall’s functionaries.

Calls and appeals made by the seminar participants themselves echoed the notion that IG Metall should work on their behalf: “our problems are the same everywhere” in Germany. Complaining about broken contracts, filthy and overpriced accommodations, and corrupt translators in one of the first courses, workers demanded interventions that only IG Metall could truly facilitate.5 Another statement hinted at wildcat strikes, which trade unions fiercely condemned, but which immigrants joined at various locations across the country in 1969. It was against this background that participants of an early seminar called on workers at the MAN truck factory in Munich to vote with IG Metall instead of allowing themselves to be seduced by “extremists and demagogues.”

German trade union policy was not the only thing communicated in the classes. From a very early stage, personnel sent by Yugoslav trade unions also participated, striving to actively influence the courses. They did so with the blessing of German politics. Consistent with the sympathies many high-ranking trade unionists harbored for Yugoslavia’s system of socialist self-management, the DGB even officially assigned Yugoslav cadres so as to encourage workers to become affiliated with German trade unions.6 It remains unclear if participants were bothered by their home government’s involvement. Especially in the early years, when most immigrants were not yet fully established in Germany, interventions by Yugoslav representatives were sometimes welcomed as protective measures. In any case, courses for Yugoslav workers were decidedly not aimed at fostering critical sentiments toward the Yugoslavian state. With Yugoslav officials present, any such criticism was muted from the outset anyway. By contrast, the DGB and IG Metall’s posture toward the Greek and Spanish dictatorships of the time was openly critical and influenced their choice of union representatives from these countries.

Xenophobia and Participants' Everyday Knowledge

Despite the monthly course’s uncritical bent, they constituted a framework in which participants could share their everyday knowledge and translate their experiences into organized political activity. Although this might have helped to overcome a feeling of impotence and to reinforce a sense of solidarity among the immigrant workers, IG Metall’s main concern was to convey an institutionally formed body of knowledge intended to introduce immigrant employees to German unions, that is, their history and the legal framework of their activities. The needs and experiences of Yugoslav workers were deemed suitable for the curriculum only when they touched on “social situations” (such as housing and hygiene standards) or when they were believed to be obstacles to seamless interactions with their German colleagues (language being the principal issue). Particularly in the early years, an almost functional understanding of knowledge dissemination prevailed, leading to neglect, if not ignorance of the participants’ expertise. It took a while, for instance, until their experiences with xenophobia were even considered legitimate topics for the monthly programs.

This attitude only changed when racist discourses gained unprecedented momentum in the early 1980s. From April 1984, investigations into what was termed the “situation of German and foreign employees” and their “mutual opinions about each other” became a regular component of the seminars, with the participants’ reflections testifying to growing anxiety about their well-being in an increasingly hostile environment. In this respect, one worker at a seminar in 1985 stated that Germans had recently started to see him “only as a foreigner and not as a human being.” With a social environment now perceived to be dominated by “Germans’ hatred toward foreigners,” many participants somewhat nostalgically referred to the early 1970s, when “we rebuilt their country” and the overall situation was ostensibly far better.

Their answers also provide us with insights into how the participants made sense of these developments. While some of them argued that racism should be met with extra-hard work and by putting more effort into language learning, many of echoed the stance taken by the trade unions, which criticized the “scapegoating” of immigrants for unemployment.7 Another participant, however, rejected any automatic correlation between racism and economic recession. Instead, she called on the “media” and the “government” to put a stop to the “propaganda against us foreigners.” Finally, a Yugoslav worker from Ingolstadt complained that above all the newly arriving ethnic Germans from Poland and Romania were responsible for most antagonisms.8

To be sure, these are only a handful of examples from the handwritten notes of some of the participants. It is nonetheless interesting to observe that the earlier predominantly top-down approach to knowledge dissemination in the seminars was challenged by the issue of xenophobia. For the first time, workers experiences and perspectives as non-Germans took center stage. It remains to be seen if such immigrant knowledge on racism actually helped to shape IG Metall’s comparatively progressive stand on immigration policy and antiracism. In any case, such perspectives “from the margins” would be a welcome contribution to the research on racism and its impact on social and cultural institutions in Germany since the 1980s.


Matthias Thaden recently completed a dissertation at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin on Croat exile activism in West Germany and its political impact. This work included archival research that was supported by scholarships from the German Historical Institutes Washington and Paris.

  1. By 1971, according to official Yugoslav statistics, 61% of the 411,503 Yugoslavs who had moved to West Germany had a Croatian background. See Ulf Brunnbauer, “Labour Emigration from the Yugoslav Region from the Late 19th Century until the End of Socialism: Continuities and Changes,” in Transnational Societies, Transterritorial Politics: Migrations in the (Post-)Yugoslav Region, 19th–21th Century, ed. Ulf Brunnbauer (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2009), 23. For a comprehensive account of immigration from Yugoslavia to Germany, see Brigitte Le Normand, “Yugoslavia,” in East Central European Migrations during the Cold War: A Handbook, ed. Anna Mazurkiewicz (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2019), 368–95. ↩︎
  2. These activities, however, were not primarily about international class solidarity but rather were a means to curb strike breaking. See Sarah Thomsen Vierra, Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 35–38. ↩︎
  3. For an excellent study on German trade unions and their various attempts to incorporate immigrant actors, see Simon Goeke, “Wir sind alle Fremdarbeiter!” Gewerkschaften, migrantische Kämpfe und soziale Bewegungen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland der 1960er und 1970er Jahre (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2020). ↩︎
  4. See IG Metall München to IG Metall Vorstand, March 2, 1970; IG Metall Vorstand to Josef Leder, Koll. Jahić and Tomislav Nezić, July 9, 1970, Archiv der sozialen Demokratie (hereafter: AdsD), 5/IGMZ930083, IG Metall, Lehrgänge YU. ↩︎
  5. “Bericht über Erfahrungen mit einem Lehrgang für jugoslawische Kollegen in der Schule Lohr,” October 5–11, 1969; “Tečaj za članove povjereničkog tijela za inozemne radnike (Jugoslaveni), 5-11 October 1969”, AdsD, 5/IGMZ930083, IG Metall, Lehrgänge YU. ↩︎
  6. See, for instance, “Gesprächsprotokoll zwischen Woschech und Richter (DGB) und Dizdarević und Bajić (JGB) in Düsseldorf,” October 9–10, 1969, AdsD, 5/DGAZ001049, DGB-Archiv, Ausländische Arbeitnehmer. ↩︎
  7. For a thorough analyses of the structural changes in West Germany and their social and cultural ramifications during the 1980s, see Lutz Rapahel, Jenseits von Kohle und Stahl: Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte Westeuropas nach dem Boom (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2019). ↩︎
  8. Quotations from statements made by participants at seminars in October 1984 and September 1985, AdsD, 5/IGMZ930094 & 5/IGMZ930095. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Matthias Thaden, "Trade Union Knowledge and Educational Programs for Yugoslavian Workers in West Germany, 1970s–1980s," Migrant Knowledge, May 27, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/05/27/trade-union-knowledge/.