Eastern German engineering workers took to the picket lines on Monday, striking in an attempt to shorten their workweek to western levels. Some fear the labor unrest could hurt the economy of the former communist east.
Striking steel workers hope to cut their hours from 38 to 35 a week.
The strike comes after union members voted overwhelmingly on Friday to down their tools after negotiations with employers broke down. Engineering trade union IG Metall wants to see the weekly working hours of auto and metal industry workers in Germany’s eastern states cut from 38 to the 35 currently required of workers in western Germany.
"Thirteen years after German reunification we need further steps to realize equal work and income conditions throughout Germany," said IG Metall boss Klaus Zwickel on Monday morning at a Volkswagen plant in Zwickau, south of Dresden.
The strike could be the start of the largest labor unrest seen in Germany since IG Metall workers across the country left production lines last year in a pay dispute with employers. Some 12,000 workers from 15 different plants took part in Monday’s strike. Eastern workers are expected to strike sporadically throughout the region until Thursday and, if no agreement is reached, the work stoppages will be expanded next week.
Around 310,000 people in Germany’s former communist east are employed in the engineering sector, which includes automakers such as Volkswagen and BMW, as well as heavy industry like steel.
Zwickel laments "fairness gap"
Zwickel has called the hours discrepancy between east and west a "fairness gap," but employers and many economists point out that many eastern operations have a much lower productivity than their western counterparts.
Michael Rogowski, president of the Federation of German Industry, dismissed the question of fairness in an interview on German radio. "The only thing that’s fair is what helps us move Germany forward," Rogowski told Deutschlandfunk Monday morning.
Some fear the strike could irreparably damage the fragile economy in the former communist East. Whereas in the western states unemployment is around 8 percent, in the depressed East the jobless make up nearly 18 percent of the total workforce.
The dispute also comes at bad moment for German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is attempting to push through unpopular reforms in the country’s overburdened welfare system and inflexible labor market. Unions have vehemently opposed Schröder’s so-called "Agenda 2010" that aims to cut welfare benefits and loosen job-protection rules.
That opposition to reform has led many in Germany to regard organized labor as a stumbling block to restructuring the country’s moribund economy. By striking to cut their hours when many Easterners are out of work, IG Metall runs the risk of further isolating the unions from the public at large.
Although IG Metall says some 15,000 new jobs would be created by shortening the week by three hours, employers and others contend at least 20,000 would be lost by the increased labor costs.
"What IG Metall is doing in the (eastern) states is destroying jobs," Christian Democrats party leader Angela Merkel told ARD public television.