Detlef Wetzel, the artisan of change at Germany's IG Metall

22nd November 2013, Comments 0 comments

Detlef Wetzel, number two of Germany's mighty IG Metall labour union since 2007 who is set to be elected its new president, has been credited with not just stemming the membership drain, but actually turning it around.

Wetzel, who turns 61 next month, joined IG Metall in 1969 and has worked his way up through the organisation, which has since grown to be Europe's largest labour union by members.

He claims his career within IG Metall started "not out of political convictions, but due to my own personal experience".

The son of a blacksmith and a factory worker, Wetzel signed up to the union when he was a machine-tool apprentice at SMS Demag in his native town of Siegen, a region in northwest Germany to which he remains deeply attached.

Gradually working his way up through the union's ranks, he was appointed head of IG Metall's regional branch in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2004 where he tackled the problem of disillusionment among members and defections hands-on.

His success in this area saw him called to IG Metall's headquarters in Frankfurt where he became the right-hand man of the union's chief Berthold Huber in 2007.

'Not liked but respected'

"We've modernised IG Metall", Wetzel told AFP in an interview in his offices on the 15th floor of the union's headquarters.

Under his guidance, IG Metall -- which represents the interests of workers in all industrial sectors from steel and car makers to mechanical and electronic engineering -- trimmed the headquarters' workforce, cutting around 200 jobs and redeploying them elsewhere.

"It wasn't easy. But we found solutions that were acceptable to everyone involved," he insisted.

Wetzel's main warhorse is to win new members and he has been behind targeted information campaigns to raise awareness of problems such as low pensions and precarious work.

And his strategy seems to be paying off. Since 2011, IG Metall is actually gaining new members after 20 years of falling numbers. Around half of the new members are younger than 27, which is an encouraging sign for the union's future.

But Wetzel's style can rub.

"He's not liked, but respected," the weekly newspaper Die Zeit wrote about him.

"He's not afraid of confrontation," said one close colleague, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He's direct, which not everyone likes."

An ardent supporter of Germany's social economic model, Wetzel is proud of IG Metall's achievements. In dialogue with employers and government, the union agreed to the extension of part-time work at the height of the economic crisis in 2009 so as to avoid mass lay-offs.

He is married and has two step-daughters.

© 2013 AFP

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