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Engineering the future: mechanical engineering unions confront challenges

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16 September, 2019Almost 90 delegates from 19 countries across the world met in Stuttgart, Germany, from 11 - 13 September for the mechanical engineering sector world conference.

The meeting brings IndustriALL Global Union affiliates together to develop a collective action plan for the next four years.

A major part of the discussion focused on the climate crisis. Because the sector develops both processes and products for transport, renewable energy and all industries with relation to greener technology, it has a key role to play. This includes agricultural, construction and mining equipment, auto components machines, energy generation components, bearings, lifts and escalators and more.

The meeting was opened by Wolfgang Lemb, who is in charge of the sector for IG Metall, and Rainer Wimmer, member of the Austrian parliament for the SPÖ and president of PRO-GE. Lemb spoke about the need to take climate change seriously, and develop a sustainable industrial policy that directs the expertise, capital and resources of the sector into quality jobs that meet climate targets.

Wimmer said that the sector is healthy and shows continued growth, with threats coming from external sources:

“We have new political players, Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, remaking the world in their own image, introducing trade wars. They represent a major setback for our fight against the climate crisis.”

IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches outlined the challenges facing the global economy, the union movement and the sector. Unions need to develop new global agreements, and organize changing demographics and working practices.

"We need to be union 4.0”, he said.

Sanches, Lemb and Wimmer held a press conference and answered media questions about the future of global organizing in the sector.

Sanches, Lemb and Wimmer held a press conference and answered media questions about the future of global organizing in the sector.

Industry director Matthias Hartwich outlined the transformation taking place:

“This is an evolution of work. It is up to unions to be part of the process, otherwise it will be left to the decision of companies and their management alone, and then change will happen to the workforce rather than with them. We need to be pro-active and put forward our demands and proposals.”

Professor Thomas Bauernhansl

Professor Thomas Bauernhansl of the Fraunhofer Institute explained how the internet of things, machine learning, 5G connections and mass high-res surveillance are likely to be features of the future. He warned that mechanical engineering faces competition from platform-based companies. Platforms have capital, but need the data that engineering firms have. Firms need to be careful that they do not end up as hardware vendors competing to make products for platforms.

The second day was opened by Klaudia Frieben of PRO-GE, who highlighted the low level of participation by women in the sector, and the obstacles they face. A number of women delegates shared their experiences, including a shop steward from the Fendt tractor factory, where 40 per cent of apprentices are women.

Amy Roe, a welder at Siemens, shares her experiences

Laurent Zibell of IndustriAll Europe opened the discussion on green technology, saying that unions need to argue for investment in developing the sector and its workers, with lifelong learning and career progression.

Assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan and Zibell also spoke about the threats and opportunities of digitization. Delegates gave examples of how their work was being completely revolutionized by new technology. Özkan said,

“We need  stronger investment in the institutions, policies and strategies that will support people through future of work transitions."

Kemal Özkan

The delegates sent a message of solidarity to the Riva steel workers, who have been on strike since 11 June.

Wolfgang Lemb introduced the action planning, which identifies green tech and industry 4.0 as the major challenges. He said:

“For the first time in the history of mankind, technological progress has overtaken social progress.”

He spoke about the importance of structures for taking the work forward: company networks, like those at SKF and thyssenkrupp, global sub-sector networks, such as the one for lifts or agricultural implements, and sub-sector conferences, such as the one on green tech.

Unions need to be part of a solution that is social, ecological and democratic.

The action plan was unanimously adopted.

A Dürr robot. Image source: Dürr

On 13 September, the delegates visited the Dürr factory at the invitation of the works council. Dürr produces 2,000 robots per year. The visit was a practical demonstration of what the factory of the future will probably look like, with a low proportion of blue-collar jobs.