FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Christiane Benner has to think long and hard about how she became the most powerful woman in German trade unionism.
“I think my good work won them over. That’s the only way to do it,” she says at last, as though considering the question for the first time, in an office filled with bouquets sent in tribute to her historic election.
Benner, 47, was picked this week as deputy leader of IG Metall, Germany’s biggest trade union, which represents 2.3 million engineering and metal workers at companies including Volkswagen and Siemens.
Her election is a sign of the times; not only is she the first woman elected to such high office in a predominantly male trade union, but her specialty is information technology.
Benner has concentrated on IT for almost two decades, and focuses on “click-workers”: contractors who work remotely, often from home, doing project work such as processing Internet data, paid on a piece-rate basis.
It’s not the kind of work commonly associated with heavy industry but, as more and more industrial research and development work is moved onto Internet platforms, IG Metall needs to reach out to such workers, Benner says.
“IG Metall will transform itself,” she told Reuters in an interview on Friday. “We know exactly what’s going on. There will be upheaval.”
The digitization of industry will be a central issue for IG Metall over the next years, with new leader Joerg Hofmann, 59, concentrating on the prospects for traditional factory workers whose tasks are being taken over by robots and more automation.
IG Metall is campaigning for these workers to be trained in higher IT functions to save them from becoming redundant.
Benner almost didn’t make it into the ranks of IG Metall’s top officials at all: two years ago, the union planned to reduce its executive board to five from seven members, but the motion was unexpectedly rejected and Benner was voted in.
Trained as a sociologist, Benner was active in union work at her then employer, mechanical engineering firm Carl Schenck AG, in her early 20s. She took a break to study and travel before returning to Germany and becoming a full-time union official.
Asked whether she imagined then she would rise to such high office, Benner laughs. “No. I didn’t think so. Who could have known?” she asks.
“I have a nose for the new issues,” she says. “But I do come from the heart of IG Metall, and I think that people know that.”
Editing by Ruth Pitchford