As Germany's state workers enter a fourth week of strikes, union and public service representatives are still trying diffuse the dispute. One proposal would entail younger employees working longer than older colleagues.
An "emergency" team cleans up the streets of Hamburg
The strikes, officially the largest Germany has witnessed in the past decade and a half, have been gathering steam and have now spread to half of Germany's 16 federal states. Initiated by the biggest public-sector union, Ver.di, the labor action has left kindergartens closed, garbage containers overflowing and non-urgent medical treatment postponed for several weeks.
The dispute, which was triggered by plans to extend the current 38.5 hour working week to a straight 40 hours, is certainly having a disruptive effect. Gerhardt Widder, the mayor of Mannheim in the south-western federal state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, said he is becoming increasingly nervous.
Tens of thousands of workers have heeded the call to strike
"The strikes are being staged at the cost of ordinary citizens who have to live with the consequences of the walkouts," Widder said. "The situation has to go back to normal, but unfortunately we are still far away from a sustainable solution to the labor conflict."
Compromise solutio n
Both the union and employers now seem to favor a compromise solution which would require younger public-sector employees to work 18 minutes longer each day, while older colleagues would only have to work slightly longer, if at all. But this proposal will only be debated again at length during the next central round of negotiations on March 10.
Ver.di leader Frank Bsirske has threatened sustained action
Berndt Keller, a labor market expert from Konstanz University, said the current dispute highlights the plight of communities and regional states which have progressively fewer resources at their disposal to finance important public services. But he added he also understands union arguments. The latter claim that a longer working week will eventually go hand in hand with the loss of up to 250,000 public-sector jobs nation-wide.
"We're talking primarily about working hours, but the underlying issue is further job losses in the public sector," he said, adding that although it would not happen overnight, it was a given. "Longer working hours mean that fewer people will have to be employed to do the same amount of work."
Outsourci n g optio n
Hesse Finance Minister Karlheinz Weimar in the state of Hesse meanwhile warned union representatives against a continuation of their threats to keep the strike action up for many weeks to come. Weimar has made clear his willingness to outsource garbage-collecting and other services and put them up for private tender.
He said there is no reason for such services to remain in the public-sector realm forever, and added that an outsourcing of services would mean fewer problems with regard to protracted labor disputes which no-one can really afford.