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Germany's Labor Unions Inflate Their Worth, Experts Say

Confident public service workers are on strike and heavy industry workers want big pay increases. But do unions have the clout to make significant demands of employers?

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Workers believe they still have strong public support, but analysts aren't so sure

Garbage collectors, hospital staffers and child care workers in one of Germany's 16 states went out on strike this week as union bosses warned that civil service workers across the country may join the work stoppage next week. It's the first big public sector walkout in 14 years. The dispute centers on the push by governments to increase the average employee work week from 38.5 to 40 hours without a corresponding increase in pay.


"Without compensation for the extra hours, we're not going to do it," said one worker preparing to picket outside of a Stuttgart government building.

The public service workers believe they have the public on their side, even if much of the private sector in Germany has already moved to 40 hours of work per week.

Wro n g issue at the wro n g time?

Demonstration bei Daimler in Bremen

German unions see increasing profits in the private sector as cause to make significant new demands

Hilmar Schneider, director of labor policy at Bonn's Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, believes the union representing the workers, Ver.di, has gone too far.

"The issue is 18 minutes per day working without being compensated," Schneider said. "Is it really worth going on strike for the first time in 14 years?"

However, Ursula Engelen-Kefer, deputy director of the Federation of German Trade Unions, asked whether it is really worth it for state and local governments "to provoke such a big conflict over 18 minutes?"

Engelen-Kefer is tracking the public sector labor conflict, noting similarities with moves by private companies in search of profits which are trying to gain more concessions from unions. Some analysts have given credit to German workers for responding to globalization pressures by accepting lower wage increases and longer working hours than other European countries. German jobs have been saved as a result, they say.

But a number of German companies have posted record profits recently. Those profits have led some unions to include significant wage increases in their strategic plans for upcoming negotiations.

"It's a clear cut division in society between those who have the benefits, who are very small in numbers and are very exclusive, while more and more parts of the population have to bear all of the sarcrifices," Engelen-Kefer said.

Decli n i n g u n io n stre n gth

Arbeiter bei VW in Wolfsburg

Workers have made major concessions to employers in recent years to ensure their jobs stay put.


Labor union membership numbers have fallen dramatically in the last decade, however, and the general strength of Germany's unions has been in decline.

Labor market watcher Schneider wonders if there is too much nostalgia for the days of the four and a half day work week and the guaranteed 30 days of vacation. Previously common worker benefits were mandated by the government, not by negotiations between workers and employers.

"So unions didn't have to a hard life," Schneider said. "They could concentrate on wage negotiations, but didn't have to talk about special programs for older workers or lay off protection. But that has changed now."

Short-term victories
Schneider reckons there are tough times ahead for Germany's unions. He thinks he knows exactly where the present labor action in the public sector is likely to go. First, the German people will be angry about civil servants going on strike, Schneider believes, in part because of their perceived safe and cushy jobs.

But once garbage begins to pile up, or snow remains on the streets, "it's only a matter of days before the people turn their anger from those who are striking to those who are preventing the strike from coming to an end," Schneider said. Government employers "will be forced to make some offers to the unions."

But unions should not expect that any success in coming days will lay meaningful groundwork for future victories, Schneider warned. He added that Germany's younger generations have already gotten the message regarding a completely different labor environment than the type enjoyed by their parents and grandparents.

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