Germany's unions are vehemently opposed to plans for lengthening working hours without wage increases. They threatened to go on strike if necessary.
The ABCs of contract negotiation: Teachers would be affected
"If we need to, we will fight," Michael Sommer, head of the German trade union federation, told ZDF television. Public servants can't always be called upon to fix the country's budget problems, he said.
Speaking in Berlin on Monday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also voiced his opposition to a general extension of the working week to 40 or more hours. He said he would prefer to find flexible solutions which take companies' situations into consideration.
In a meeting of state premiers last Thursday on civil service work contracts, the heads of Germany's states agreed to extend working hours for western German civil servants, without pay increases. The goal of the new contracts is to increase weekly working hours from 38.5 to at least 40 hours per week. Germany's large civil service population includes teachers and hospital workers, as well as those directly employed directly in the government bureaucracy.
The plan comes at a time when Germany is facing mounting pressure to restructure its costly labor market or stand by as jobs and investment move to the cheaper climates of Eastern Europe or Asia. German workers already work the least number of hours for the most pay compared to their Eastern European neighbors, according to a study by the Cologne Insitute for Business Research.
Setting an example
To prevent job loss, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, head of the conservative CSU party, demanded a 40-hour work week without increased pay, saying public servants should set an example for private industry. He also claimed the move would increase German productivity.
He went on to say he expects some German states to introduce a work week of up to 42 hours before the end of this year.
Laurenz Meyer, secretary general of the Christian Democratic Union, also came out in favor of the longer hours. One or two more hours a week would be the best way to increase competitiveness while securing incomes, he said.
Unions, including Verdi and the DGB trade union federation, think otherwise.
Speaking to the Financial Times Deutschland
newspaper, DGB's Sommer said lengthening working hours is basically a faulty concept.
"Longer working hours destroy jobs, prevent new hiring, and reduce job opportunities for those who are out of work," he said. "Lengthening working hours in the public sector would cut out more than 100,000 jobs" across the country.
He acknowledged that in exceptional cases, "short-term additional work hours could be the way for some companies to pull out of a crisis."
Over the weekend, Verdi spokesman Harald Reitter said a 40 hour week without more pay comes down to workers taking a pay cut. He also demanded an explanation as to how increased working hours could lead to more jobs. He calculated that an increase to 42 working hours a week for civil service jobs would lead to the loss of 130,000 jobs country-wide.
The debate came about as a number of German states cancelled their civil service contracts last week. In the new contract negotiations, not only working hours but also benefits -- such as a thirteenth month of pay for Christmas -- will come under the lens.
Even some ruling politicians are calling for new contracts. One supporter of increased work hours is Interior Minister Otto Schily. And German Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement said he doesn't oppose the idea of longer working hours in Germany in all cases. Firms need to be able to flexibly increase work hours to accomodate more productivity, he said. Such flexibility could also prevent firms from moving jobs overseas.