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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 66/No.21May 27, 2002

lead article
Industry-wide strikes
rattle bosses in Germany
Members of IG Metall union at the Mercedes-Benz unit of DaimlerChrysler during first week of strikes. More than 100,000 workers stopped production in 88 plants.
Germany’s first industry-wide strike in seven years entered its second week without a wage settlement being reached between members of the IG Metall union and the bosses in the auto industry.

The metalworkers union has extended its series of rolling one-day strikes to the northeastern states of Berlin and Brandenburg, calling on 130,000 workers from 135 plants to walk out in support of their demand for a 4 percent wage increase.

More than 100,000 workers in 88 plants stopped production during the first week, affecting plants owned by carmakers Porsche, Audi, and the Mercedes-Benz unit of the DaimlerChrysler Corp. Union officials have said that the strikes will continue until the bosses make a reasonable offer.

Negotiations between the employers federation and the union are scheduled to resume May 15, after breaking down in April when the union rejected an offer of 3.3 percent. The union had initially demanded a 6.5 percent increase. Claiming that higher wage hikes would undermine Germany’s economic recovery and their companies’ international competitiveness, the manufacturing bosses have stuck to their guns and warned of further job cuts.

"We expect at least 4 percent," said Ute Hass, chairwoman of the workers’ council at the DaimlerChrysler plant in southern Berlin. "Since the last settlement, productivity has gone up but real wages have actually fallen." Articles in the big-business press have noted rank and file support for the walkouts on the basis that small wage increases over the past decade have failed to keep up with inflation.

IG Metall Union president Klaus Zwickel said that with turnover of 710 billion euros the employers can afford a raise.

The big-business media has warned of the danger that other unions currently engaged in separate negotiations may also strike for wage increases. The Service Employees union called a meeting for May 17 to discuss whether it would go out after rejecting a 1.7 percent increase offered by the bosses. Negotiations for wage increases for 440,000 retail workers similarly broke down in North RhineWestphalia. In addition, construction workers are currently in negotiation for a 4.5 increase, and printing workers held work stoppages earlier this month to press for a 6.5 percent raise.

"Wage agreements in one sector--typically metalworking, which accounts for 10 percent of German employment--set the tone for negotiations elsewhere," wrote the Wall Street Journal, pointing to the stakes in the metalworkers’ dispute. The union’s contract covers 3.6 million workers and many companies are openly threatening to walk out of the bosses’ federation or move production to another country if the union persists with its wage demands.

"Whether it’s 3.5 percent or 4 percent is not so important, but it’s clear that the higher the wage increase, the stronger the pressure to shed labor," said Ulrich Schroeder, an economist with Deutsche Bank AG in Frankfurt.

The German rulers have also sought to push back unemployment benefits and other social entitlements won by the German workers that have helped alleviate the impact of the economic recession for laid-off workers.

"Job protection rules have been relaxed, but it’s still expensive to lay off workers," lamented the New York Times last February.

Because of relatively high wage levels and allegedly restrictive work rules, German companies have invested in labor-saving machinery and kept hiring to a minimum, said Hans-Werner Sinn, director of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich. "German firms cut back on their labor force by not employing people. It sounds strange, but Germany needs to create a new sector of low-wage, low-skilled jobs," he added. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has come under fire because of rising unemployment figures. Last February the German daily Bild ran an article about the subject under the headline, "Chancellor, What Now?" Four years ago Schröder made a central theme of his election campaign the promise that he would keep the number of unemployed below 3.5 million by the next election. Last January the number of unemployed workers rose above four million. Unemployment levels have been disproportionately higher in the eastern part of Germany at 15 percent, compared with 8 percent for Western Germany.
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