Moderate head of powerful German union steps down unexpectedly

BERLIN, June 8 (Reuters) - The leader of Germany’s powerful IG Metall union unexpectedly announced his resignation on Monday, after just 19 months in the job.

Detlef Wetzel nominated his deputy, Joerg Hofmann, as his replacement. He also nominated board member Christiane Benner to be Hofmann’s chief deputy, which would make her the first woman to rise near the top of a major German union.

“With the experienced Joerg Hofmann ... and Christiane Benner, IG Metall will be in good hands to deal with future issues,” Wetzel said.

The nominations must be endorsed by the board in July and then a union congress in late October.

The 62-year-old Wetzel took over at IG Metall - Germany’s largest union, with 2.27 million members - in late November 2013. A moderate like his predecessor, Berthold Huber, he helped restore the engineering union’s standing after four stormy years under hardliner Juergen Peters.

An official at IG Metall said that Wetzel, only the 11th post-war leader of the union, was stepping aside mainly to make way for younger leaders after spending eight years on the board - Hofman is 59 and Benner 47. The official said no shift in strategy was planned.

Women are becoming an increasingly important part of IG Metall and make up 22 percent of its membership, the union said.

IG Metall represents employees at major car makers such as Daimler, BMW, Porsche and industrial giant Siemens, but its membership had been dropping in recent decades. Huber and Wetzel reversed that decline; the union has gained 30,000 members since 2010.

IG Metall leaders played a decisive role in pushing out powerful Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech in April, leaving Huber as acting chairman of Europe’s biggest carmaker. VW’s works council chief, Bernd Osterloh, and Huber combined with the premier of Lower force out Piech.

Wage deals won by IG Metall often set the tone for pay increases across Germany. Earlier this year, the union secured a 3.4 percent wage increase for 15 months from April plus a one-off payment of 150 euros - the biggest wage increase for years. (Reporting by Jan Schwarz and Georgina Prodhan; Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Larry King)