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Beleaguered Deputy Gets Aggressive in German Union Dispute

The ongoing power struggle over the leadership of Germany’s giant IG Metall union has come to an open rupture between IG Metall Chairman Klaus Zwickel and his designated successor, Jürgen Peters.

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Those were the days: IG Metall Chairman Klaus Zwickel, right, and his deputy Jürgen Peters, sat elbow-to-elbow as late as last week

Peters went on the offensive on Monday, accusing Zwickel of leading a campaign against him. Peters once again denied accusations of deception relating to the failed metalworkers’ strike in eastern Germany. He also accused Zwickel of "insinuation" and spreading "mistruths."

"Everyone involved was well-enough informed. The accusation of deception is mean-spirited and comes completely out of thin air," Peters said at a press conference held in Frankfurt. "Whoever made up these accusations is clearly only interested in damaging my personal integrity in the organization.”

At the same time, 59-year-old Peters conceded that IG Metall had suffered “a painful defeat in the most recent labor dispute.” He said he would be interested in an "unsparing analysis" of the lost strike, and would be happy to do his part for one.

Peters also reiterated that he would seek the chairmanship when Zwickel retires in October and denied rumors that he would step down from his current position as deputy.

"I am not the desired candidate"

“Everyone knows that I am not the desired candidate of Klaus Zwickel. But there’s nothing I can do about that,” Peters said.

Peters said he expected that at the latest, Zwickel will take back his accusations following the board meeting on Tuesday. By then, Peters will have presented his detailed assessment of the strike defeat. Until now, only the ten managing members of the IG Metall supervisory board had discussed the strike.

Specifically, Zwickel accused Peters and the union's Berlin District Leader Hasso Düvel, who together were responsible for the strike, to have misled the union leadership about the effect that the eastern German action would have on western Germany. The work stoppage at the facilities of eastern German suppliers meant that production was interrupted at a number of western German factories.

Placing the blame

According to a report in the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper, Peters had his wages group write a report on the failed strike stating that Peters was not solely responsible for the failed strike. Instead, it said, there was plenty of blame to go around. The report concedes that the leadership made errors, the newspaper said, but lays the true fault for the failed strike on “outside circumstances.” If anyone is at fault, then it is the whole management board, the report concluded.

In June, IG Metall took to the picket lines to cut the work week in eastern Germany from 38 to 35 hours in an effort to bring labor practices in line with those in the west. The union said the difference creates a “fairness gap,” but employers fought cutting the hours until the end, saying it would endanger thousands of jobs in the former communist east.

The strike, which hit automobile production across the country, was finally called off on June 28 after marathon negotiations with employers failed to yield a breakthrough. For IG Metall, which last experienced an unsuccessful strike in 1954, the embarrassing climb-down came as a massive blow.

Failed power play?

"There’s no doubt that IG Metall miscalculated -- we misjudged the political situation and we estimated that the economic situation in Germany was more positive,” union spokesman Claus Eilrich said last week.

Some observers think Peters was hoping to use the strike to help build his own profile before taking over the helm from Zwickel, who is retiring in October.

The latest strike had been highly unpopular with businesses, the government and the public, as it was seen as further damaging one of Germany’s weakest regions at a time of severe economic downturn. Unemployment in the former communist east runs as high as 18 percent in some areas. But the defeat also comes at a difficult time for IG Metall and other unions after their recent failed efforts to block the government’s economic reform proposals and social welfare cuts.

In addition to tarnishing the union's public image, many IG Metall members also fear that the failed strike has badly weakened the union’s position in any future negotiations with employers or the government.

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