Public sector workers in 10 German states joined strikes against longer working hours Monday in a conflict that has exposed divisions within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government.
Around 30,000 workers hit the streets in Monday's strikes
After the collapse Saturday of talks between the giant Verdi service sector union and state negotiators, some 30,000 people nationwide stayed off the job at the week's start.
The strike began six weeks ago in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg and has since spread as negotiations in the worst public sector labor dispute in 14 years have become deadlocked. As garbage remained uncollected and child care centers shuttered, half of Merkel's power-sharing government urged a new approach in the talks, ahead of three key state elections this month.
The leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), Matthias Platzeck, suggested arbitration to bridge the gap between the two sides. "Arbitration is a sensible suggestion which it is worth discussing," Platzeck said at a meeting of the party leadership in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg which goes to the polls March 26.
Things haven't gotten this bad -- yet
But the idea was rejected out of hand by the states' chief negotiator, Lower Saxony state Finance Minister Hartmut Möllring of Merkel's Christian Democrats, who demanded a return to the negotiating table without the intervention of third parties.
Governing parties at odds
The SPD has been highly critical of Möllring's hard-line approach and has accused him of driving the talks into a dead end.
"Möllring must be replaced -- that is the way to end this conflict," said Ute Vogt, the SPD candidate for state premier in Baden-Württemberg who is trying to unseat a conservative.
The SPD premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck, who is also facing an election this month, threatened that SPD-led state governments could quit the employers' association represented by Möllring due to his combative style.
However, Möllring has attempted to tap into citizens' anger over the walk-outs in protest at a work increase of only 18 minutes per day in jobs that are well protected from the widespread layoffs plaguing the private sector.
"We expect the union to agree to lengthen the work day by 18 minutes but it will only agree to 14 minutes per week -- that is pure provocation," Möllring said. "I am only representing the position agreed upon by the state employers' association," he said, adding that the states could not accept a deal "at any price."
Merkel's conservatives have rallied around Möllring and accused the SPD of undermining a negotiating position in the states' interest.
"The conflict could become problematic for the grand coalition because it shows their differing relations with the unions," the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said, referring to the government. "In the interest of harmony in the coalition, it would not be good if the state employers' association broke into SPD- and conservative-led factions."
Merkel and the SPD's Platzeck aren't smiling now
Verdi opposes state plans to extend the working week from 38.5 hours to 40 hours without additional pay. Employers have offered a compromise of 39.5 hours. The union argues that longer working hours will lead to tens of thousands of job cuts, while the cash-strapped states say the measure is an essential step toward plugging holes in the public coffers.
As the tension mounted in the states, Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said that neither the federal government nor the chancellor planned to intervene, citing the states' right to agree public sector work contracts.
Negotiations are to continue in Baden-Württemberg Tuesday between Verdi and state employers.
About 4.7 million people are employed in Germany's public sector.