Dawn Gearhart reflects on her experiences in Germany

Conducted research on trade unions
Dawn Gearhart experiences in Germany
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This past summer, I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend 3 months as a guest researcher at the Hans Böckler foundation in Düsseldorf, Germany. I spent my time conducting surveys, studies and analyzing data on the German trade union response to the economic crisis.

I interacted directly with German workers and union representatives from a variety of fields. I also interviewed workers who were using the global economic and financial crisis as an opportunity to advance the world of work and promote social justice through union involvement. I spent a major part of my time working with the WSI Institute of Economic and Social Research, which houses Germany's largest collective bargaining archives. The foundation also includes the IMK Macroeconomic Policy Institute which deals specifically with the role of labor in the economy.

Working with the WSI and IMK helped me understand the complex and important role that workers and unions play in policy making and government in Germany. The social protection and support infrastructure that is available to all Germans is a direct result of the level of importance that workers have in the German political sphere. 

For example, extremely high rate of unemployment is typical of a recession. However, in Germany, workers may see a reduction in hours of work, but they are rarely laid off. This is because taxes are democratically voted for throughout Germany and this provides a safety net during times of recession. German workers lose a portion of their earnings, but are able to keep their jobs in the long run. The amount of income lost is relatively small because wages are subsidized by government in the event of a faltering economy.

I also had the opportunity to experience a very different culture firsthand. I networked and developed relationships with people involved in the international labor movement. 

Furthermore, I spent a large part of my summer exploring Düsseldorf and the surrounding areas. I visited the Netherlands, Paris, Belgium, Berlin, and interviewed a few workers from each region to enhance my international perspective.

I had an incredible experience this summer and am grateful I was able to avail this opportunity as an undergraduate student. I hope that this program continues well into the future so that other students have access to similar opportunities made possible by the ILR International Experience Grants.

I learned about the world, and the world of work. I conducted meaningful research and immersed myself in a foreign culture and country, and even learned a little German in the process!