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Business

Unions Threaten to Strike over Longer Workweek

Bavaria's decision to force state civil servants to work a 42-hour week has incensed German trade unions, which are now threatening massive labor unrest to halt the plans from spreading in the public and private sectors.

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Service sector union Verdi says it's ready to strike.

Germany's legions of state bureaucrats are known for their propensity to grumble about what they consider poor working conditions. But confronted with the prospect of working longer hours each week, the country's large civil service population -- with full union backing -- is now preparing to take to the barricades.

"There will be conflict in a previously unknown scale," Frank Bsirske, head of service sector trade union Verdi, told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper on Friday. "Employers should have no illusions about the dimension of this fight which they are apparently looking for."

The storm of protest was unleashed after Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber announced on Wednesday that state civil servants would be expected to work 42 hours a week from September. All other state employees would also have to work the longer hours if they were promoted or hired after May 1.

Last week, the premiers of Germany's 16 federal states had agreed to extend working hours for civil servants in western Germany, without pay increases. The goal of the new civil service labor contract was to increase working hours to at least 40 hours per week. Western Germans currently work 38.5 hours per week, while eastern Germans work 40 hours. Germany's large civil service population includes teachers and hospital workers, as well as those directly employed in the government bureaucracy.

Bsirske said Verdi, which represents public sector employees, was ready for a long labor confrontation including strikes to force the states to back down. He said an increase in the number of hours worked could cost 100,000 public service jobs. Bsirske also accused states with conservative-led governments like Bavaria of wanting to use the 42-hour workweek for civil servants as a test case for the private sector.

Gewerkschaften geben sich kämpferisch

Frank Bsirske

"They want a civil service battle to break through for an expansion of working hours in the entire economy," he said.

Working longer

But Erwin Teufel, the conservative premier of the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, defended the plans to make the workweek longer on Friday. "We again have to work more in Germany," he said according to the Associated Press. He said it was unfair that some civil servants were already working 41 hours a week while their colleagues in other states put in only 38 hours. Most states are looking for ways to save costs as the economy has stalled in recent years, causing tax revenues to plummet.

The move to increase hours for civil servants is likely to increase attendance at union-sponsored nationwide protests this Saturday against the government's so-called "Agenda 2010" -- a package of welfare cuts and economic reforms.

"I'm certain there will be a huge response. The resentment and anger is growing…people are feeling the effects of Agenda 2010 on their own backs," Bsirske said.

Martin Kannegießer, head of engineering employers' association Gesamtmetall, warned the trade unions against escalating the situation into full-blown labor unrest. In an interview with the Financial Times Deutschland, he said the protests on Saturday should not be used to poison dialogue between different groups in German society.

"Emotions should not be allowed to be misused for specific purposes. We expect and appeal to the unions that they act responsibly," Kannegießer told the paper.

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