Photo: AP

When the government won’t do the work of improving basic rights for everyone, who will? A union can. As long as you unionize the whole damn sector. Example one: Germany.

IG Metall is the biggest union in Germany, representing close to a million industrial workers. After a long and contentious negotiation that featured 24-hour strikes, the union this week signed a new two-year contract that entitles workers to not only moderate annual raises, but also the option of shifting down to 28-hour work weeks for a period of time—to take care of family members, for example—and then returning to full 35-hour work weeks without a penalty. It is a landmark deal for the sort of work-life balance and flexibility that many working professionals crave, but are never able to achieve.

Because of the sheer size of IG Metall, the precedents that it sets in its contracts have the potential to transform all of German society. Nine hundred thousand workers get the new terms automatically, along with their families, and other major unions look to IG Metall’s contracts as precedent-setters for the entire unionized working class. (German’s two largest unions alone, IG Metall and Verdi, account for 15% of the national workforce.) In earlier decades, the union brought about things like the five-day work week, paid sick leave, and the 35-hour work week through exactly these means. It’s a model with a pretty good track record. Imagine, for example: Instead of relying on Ivanka Trump to bring about paid family leave in America, unions could create the conditions in which that benefit becomes accepted as a standard cost of doing business.

And Germany’s economy is the pride of Europe. Clearly, strong industrial unions can play a vital role in making sure that strong economies work for everyone, not just those at the top. Once you unionize the whole damn industry, you see that the industry starts to be a good place to work for everyone. Crazy.