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Germany

Peters Expected To Lead IG Metall

Jürgen Peters will now likely replace Klaus Zwickel as head of the crisis-ridden engineering union IG Metall. But critics say the new leadership may not be enough to reverse the union's waning influence.

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Jürgen Peters (left) and Berthold Huber hope their nominations to head IG Metall will end the union's worst crisis ever.

The executive board of Germany's IG Metall on Wednesday gave a thumbs up to the nominations of Jürgen Peters and Berthold Huber as the crisis-stricken engineering union's next chairman and vice chairman. But their selection is still contingent on a vote scheduled for an IG Metall congress in August.

Participants at the meeting told German public broadcaster ARD that support for the two men was unanimous. The move came one day after IG Metall chairman Klaus Zwickel resigned from his post following a power struggle with Peters.

IG Metall's board is seeking to stop a fight at the top that has threatened not only the future of the engineering union, but also the political influence of all unions in Germany.

Zwickel had originally planned to step down in October, but he chose to leave earlier after failing to derail the nomination of Peters, who he blamed for a failed strike in June. Peters called a strike after employers refused to implement a 35-hour work week in eastern Germany to bring it in line with labor standards in the western part of the country. But in a country with a stagnant or even shrinking economy and high unemployment, the strike found little traction.

The crisis that followed was the worst in the union's postwar history, bringing into question the future of collective bargaining agreements and the political power of unions in Germany. As the power struggle dominated German headlines, it seemed unlikely that 59-year-old Peters would be able to succeed Zwickel at the helm, as IG Metall's board had proposed in April.

The traditionalist vs. the reformer?

Peters comes from the hardline traditionalist left wing of the union and has opposed a number of structural reforms sought by the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The vice chairman designate, fifty-three-year old Huber, who serves as the head of the union's Baden-Württemberg chapter, is considered a reform-minded moderate.

"Today's decision by the executive is a partnership born of common sense but no love match," Huber said at a press conference in Frankfurt. Huber said he regretted the power struggle that had cast a shadow over the union in recent weeks and that he hoped the "process of self-mutilation" had ended, before adding that he was optimistic he could steer IG Metall back to "calmer waters."

Doubts persist

Others offered a more skeptical outlook. "The power struggle has just been postponed," University of Bonn historian Harald Biermann said, according to Reuters. "This will be fought out later. Neither Peters nor Huber will move towards the other one."

Criticism also came from within the union's own camp. A delegation of IG Metall members from Frankfurt-based carmaker Opel attended the meeting and presented a survey showing that Opel workers wanted the union to select entirely new leadership. "We do not agree with the new proposal," said Opel's Heinz Fussmann, adding that those responsible for the strike debacle, including Jürgen Peters, should be held accountable.

In recent weeks, outgoing chairman Zwickel sought to derail Peters' nomination, and instead threw his weight behind Huber as candidate for the top spot. Amidst all the saber rattling, Huber withdrew his candidacy for the chairman position. Then last week Huber said he would be willing to lead the union together with Peters if their areas of responsibility were clearly divided.

But the two face considerable challenges. According to a report published Wednesday by the German business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, the union is quickly losing members. IG Metall lost 47,000 members during the first half of 2003, up from 40,000 departures during all of 2002. Add to that deficits of €8.4 million ($9.6 million) in 2002 and €6.6 million ($7.5 million) in 2001 and the picture looks bleak. Considering that 95 percent of IG Metall's revenues are derived from member dues, the decline is particularly troublesome.

Peters said on Wednesday he would make it his mission to shift the tide at IG Metall.

"The members at the factories do not want an IG Metall ripped apart by feuds -- not among the rank-and-file, in regions or at companies, nor among its leadership," Peters told reporters. "Camps and factions should not be allowed at IG Metall."

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