With preparations already underway for a warning strike by metals workers, the prospect of an all-out industrial conflict in one of Germany's key industry sectors has become the latest worry facing Chancellor Schröder.
The writing is on the wall
Despite an unexpected improvement in employers' pay offer, workers in Germany's key metals and engineering industry are heading towards industrial action.
The executive of trade union IG Metall plans to ballot its members on unlimited industrial action at the end of April, if no pay agreement has been forged by then.
An all-out strike could then be underway by the start of May. But this will be preceded by a campaign of warning strikes.
To avoid large-scale warning strikes, industry association Gesamtmetall must improve its offer within the next two weeks, said IG Metall's vice-president, Jürgen Peters.
But Handelsblatt has learned that the first warning strikes could come as early as Monday, March 26.After Easter, if there's no agreement in the meantime, IG Metall will start calling wildcat stoppages at individual firms. "No firm can feel sure of being spared," said Armin Schild, spokesman on wages for the IG Metall executive.
Gesamtmetall on Friday offered a 2% increase in wages. This may have been more than many observers had expected, but IG Metall's Peters described it as not at all worth talking about.
The union's leaders are now clearly gearing up for a strike. Jürgen Stamm, head of the Stuttgart-based division for the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, said everything's now pointing to a strike ballot.
And Gerd Lobodda, head of the Nuremberg-based Munich division, described an all-out strike as almost inevitable. "Absolutely incomprehensible" is how Gesamtmetall, meanwhile, described the union's position.
"It is irresponsible of IG Metall to stir up conflict," said Gesamtmetall managing director Hans Werner Busch.
In so doing, they are putting jobs at risk and adding to the fraught nature of talks that are already complicated.
The last major strike in the metals and engineering industry was in Bavaria in 1995. That resulted in defeat for the employers, who found themselves having to foot the bill for a costly cut in the working week, and also having to cough up a wage increase of 7% in two stages.
But this time it will be different, according to Busch. "We are in a position to take up the fight if IG Metall forces us to."
Such fighting talk from both sides will fill Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with dread, especially because he faces general elections in just six months.
He has often appealed to both the unions and the employers to avoid an industrial conflict. But in the case of the unions at least, his appeal is likely to have fallen on deaf ears, since organized labor's relations with Schröder's Social Democratic Party become ever more frosty.
Some would describe the sentiment voiced by IG Metall's Peters as typical of the unions' current attitude towards the SPD under Schröder.
Wages policy cannot be decided on the basis of whether a particular course of action helps or burdens the governing coalition of SPD and Greens, Peters said at the weekend.
Gesamtmetall says an improved offer is out of the question. The latest offer exhausts all room for maneuver, said Busch.