“Alternative” unions whose views overlap with those of nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) are presently minnows compared with the decades-old centre-left leviathans that still dominate the workers' movement.
Far-right union Zentrum Automobil has claimed just 20 of 180,000 seats on works councils at firms like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler, in elections that run until May 31st.
The union's founder, Oliver Hilburger, is a works council member at Daimler's Untertuerkheim factory in Stuttgart, a regular participant in demonstrations by AfD-linked anti-Islam group Pegida and founded a neo-Nazi rock band.
A few candidates tied to a broader right-wing movement known as Ein Prozent (One Percent) have also won seats.
Oliver Hilburger. Photo: DPA
But increasing numbers of people are turning a receptive ear to their ideas.
“All the parties on the left, including the CDU” — Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right conservatives — “are parties whose principal agenda is globalization,” said spokesman Simon Kaupert.
“The alternatives are AfD on the political level, and Zentrum Automobil within the firm,” he said.
'International solidarity does not exist'
The rise of the far-right comes as Germany, like other European nations, is wrestling with the reality of a multicultural society, and regular wars of words erupt over the place of Islam or how to distinguish desirable from undesirable immigrants.
On the ground, the country has long been dependent on migration to keep its economic motor turning, importing hundreds of thousands of Turks as so-called “guest workers” after World War II and more recently floods of newcomers from less prosperous EU neighbours.
Even with such inflows, Germany's ageing population after decades of low birth rates means firms can spend months tracking down skilled workers and many open jobs simply go unfilled.
Nevertheless, Zentrum Automobil has its sights on a different world.
“International solidarity does not exist. I can only stand in solidarity with people I know, people I have something to do with, not with someone at the other end of the Earth,” Kaupert said.
But Klaus Doerre, a sociologist at the university of Jena, said: “If you only want solidarity for natural-born Germans, that will smash the unions apart,” said
“It only works if it's practised across boundaries of nation, ethnicity or gender.”
Turkish “guest workers” in Düsseldorf in 1970. Photo: DPA
Doerre sees the far-right's assault on the auto industry, with its 800,000 employees and trailblazing character for the wider economy, as an attempt to undermine the “strongholds” of traditional left-wing unions like metalworkers' group IG Metall.
“A stable orientation towards the AfD is growing among significant numbers of workers, low-level employees, even among union members,” he warned.
The AfD has also styled itself as a staunch defender of Germany's beleaguered diesel technology, at a time when dozens of cities are mulling inner-city bans for the most polluting engines, to the dismay of millions of diesel owners — and auto industry workers.
One of the challenges for traditional unions like IG Metall is that the far-right unionists' strategy is designed to minimize anti-racist objections.
“They present themselves as enemies of globalization and avoid making openly racist statements,” Doerre noted, transforming unions' historic focus on class struggle into an “us versus them” fight.
Having themselves battled globalization in the shape of massive trade agreements like the stalled US-EU TTIP deal or the CETA EU-Canada agreement, it can be difficult for union leaders to draw a clear line without driving away some of their members.
“The far right is fundamentally anti-union,” with “nothing social about them,” said Annelie Buntenbach, a board member at the DGB trade union federation.
At DGB's upcoming congress, members will debate motions calling for “reaffirming anti-fascism as a foundation stone of the union movement” and “refusing any cooperation with the AfD”.
Such votes present an opportunity for delegates to shore up unions' left flank as much as mark their differences with the far right.
Leaders “are afraid to lose members by drawing clear boundaries with the right,” Doerre said, but they could just as easily lose supporters from immigrant backgrounds or left-wingers by offering only half-hearted responses.
One thing is clear, he sums up: “not talking about it doesn't help”.