Germany’s once mighty engineering union IG Metall is facing a leadership crisis, after it was embarrassingly forced to call off a strike to shorten working hours in the eastern part of the country last month.
IG Metall's failed strike has put a question mark on the future of chairman-designate Jürgen Peters.
In June, IG Metall took to the picket lines to cut the work week in eastern Germany from 38 to 35 hours, in an effort to bring practices in line with those in the west. The union said the difference creates a “fairness gap”, but employers fought cutting the hours until the end, saying it would endanger thousands of jobs in the former communist east.
The strike, which hit automobile production across the country, was finally called off on Saturday after marathon negotiations with employers failed to yield a breakthrough. For IG Metall, which last experienced an unsuccessful strike in 1954, the embarrassing climb-down comes as a massive blow.
"There’s no doubt that the IG Metall miscalculated – we misjudged the political situation and we estimated that the economic situation in Germany was more positive,” union spokesman Claus Eilrich told German television.
After publicly admitting IG Metall completely bungled the labor dispute, some members have started calling for heads to roll. Many are blaming IG Metall’s designated chairman Jürgen Peters – one of the strike’s main backers – for the debacle and are questioning whether he should now head the union this autumn.
“If I were in his situation, I would seriously consider making personal consequences,” Klaus Mehrens, head of IG Metall’s Frankfurt branch, told the Rheinpfalz newspaper on Tuesday. Some observers think Peters was hoping to use the strike to help build his own profile before taking over the helm from IG Metall Chairman Klaus Zwickel, who is retiring in October.
A "disastrous defeat"
Hasso Düvel, IG Metall head for Berlin and Brandenburg and the union’s prime negotiator during the strike, has also come under fire. On Tuesday he indicated he might step down, saying the incident was a "disastrous defeat" for IG Metall.
The latest strike had been highly unpopular with business, the government and the public, as it was seen as further damaging one of Germany’s weakest regions at a time of severe economic downturn. Unemployment in the former communist east is as high as 18 percent. But the defeat also comes at a difficult time for IG Metall and other unions after their recent failed efforts to block the government’s economic reform proposals and social welfare cuts.
Besides tarnishing the union’s image with the public, many IG Metall members also fear that the failed strike has badly dented the union’s position in any future negotiations with employers or the government.
"This defeat will weaken the unions for many years to come. It will lead to a clear isolation of the east," René Vits, works council chairman of the Dresden-based automobile part supplier Federal Mogul, told the Berliner Zeitung on Monday. "What should the smaller, weaker unions do, when even the IG Metall can’t push through anything?"
In an effort to salvage some of its goal, IG Metall is now focusing on negotiating reduced working time with companies on a plant-specific basis. It has already hammered out deals with a handful of firms in Saxony, which foresee a full implementation of the 35-hour work week by 2009.