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Germany

Wave of Warning Strikes Expands

Workers at Siemens laid down their tools in protest on Friday, joining other members of Germany’s metal workers’ union who are demanding a 6.5% pay raise.

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IG Metall union members striking this week

Just before Friday’s latest round of negotiations between labour and management, the country’s IG Metall union called for an expansion of warning strikes around the country.

In response, some 9,400 employees of Siemens, Infineon and Epcos operations in Bavaria walked temporarily off the job. Siemens workers in Berlin also took part. IG Metall said it has called a total of 23,000 workers to lay down their tools for several hours Friday.

The labour action follows work stoppages on Thursday, when more than 105,000 employees from 246 companies took part in warning strikes.

According to union spokespeople, Friday's work stoppages will mark the end of the union’s first wave of strikes, one which began in the run-up to Easter in the east of the country.

Labour and management in the states of North Rhine-Westfalia and Lower Saxony are meeting on Friday morning in the fourth and fifth rounds of talks respectively. But according to IG Metall spokesman Claus Eilrich, the two parties are still far from a final wage agreement.

If no consensus is reached, and employers do not increase their current offer of a 2% pay raise, the union says it plans on unleashing a second wave of warning strikes next week.

In addressing union members from Volkswagen, IG Metall chairman Klaus Zwickel stepped up the pressure on employers. "Either we see light at the end of the tunnel in the next few days," he said, "or we declare the talks to have failed and call for a general vote at the end of April."

A union vote is a prerequisite for a general strike, one not limited to a few hours as the warning strikes are.

The Wage Stage - "To Strike or Not to Strike"

The situation might seem dire to outsiders, but the short work stoppages and harsh words are all part of an annual play that is put on in the theatre of German labour relations. The actors this year are again faithfully following a script that has a lot of bluster, but has keep the relative peace between labour and management for decades.

Act 1 features the all-important wage negotiations, where pay scales are set for an entire industry. Their frequency depends on how various contracts are structured, however, they generally take place every 12 months. In IG Metall’s case, whose members work in the metals and electronics industries, labour and management sat down in February.

Act 2 follows depending on the outcome of act 1. This year, the parties could not come to an agreement, but instead of marching immediately out onto the streets, members are obliged by German law to sit out a four-week cooling down, or "peace" period.

Act 3 is where the play is now, the warning strike phase. These are short work stoppages of usually only one or two hours. These "mini-strikes" are more of an annoyance to employers than a serious threat to production schedules and budgets. They are intended to serve as a taste of possible things to come, that is, longer strikes, if management refuses to come closer to union demands. But usually after a series of stoppages and all-night talks, both sides agree to a deal that is about half way between what unions demand and employers offer.

And if act 3 does not bring about results unions can accept, they move onto the final act, full-scale strikes. This is what IG Metall Klaus Zwickel has threatened if negotiations are not wrapped up soon.

Barking, Rarely Biting

While German unions still wield a great deal of influence in Germany, only 32% of Germany employees are actually members of one. And laws surrounding when and how workers can strike make large-scale disruptions of daily life, which are so common in France for example, a relative rarity in Germany.

Politically motivated strikes, which often shut down French roads when farmers strike against government policies, are illegal in Germany. The warning strikes like those called now by IG Metall may irritate management, but they rarely lead to larger actions. In fact, the last large-scale strikes in Germany took place in 1996, when 100,000 employees in the retail sector protested against longer shop hours.

And despite frequent flag waving and whistle blowing by German union members, during the 1990’s only 11 work days were lost on average due to strikes. Only Switzerland, Japan and Austria had fewer. US companies had to count on five times that number of days lost to labour actions. French employers lost an average of 77 days a year.

"Strikes in Germany have become less frequent over the decades," said Dr. Hagen Lesch of the Cologne Institute of Business Research. "The decline started in the 1970’s and every decade since we’re seen fewer and fewer work stoppages."

Unions Losing Members

The world-wide trend of declining union membership rolls is also reflected in Germany. As Germany shifts toward a service sector and high-tech economy, its manufacturing base—the traditional stronghold of trade unionism—continues to erode.

IG Metall lost 53,000 members in 2000 alone. Of eight large unions in Germany, only one, the new ver.di service sector union actually gained members. The others shrunk, usually by the ten of thousands.

Still Have Clout

Still, union culture is deeply ingrained in Germany. Although many business leaders and analysts say trade unions and their ambitious wage and labour demands hinder rather than help the German economy, unions still find wide support among the German populace.

A survey by the Emnid Institute published this week showed that 57 percent of Germans said they thought the current strike action was justified. Only 47 percent opposed it.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder might find himself in the latter category as of late. The latest scuffle between labour and management has become a headache for him. He is facing a re-election battle this year and needs for the German economy to climb out of the doldrums. He has called on the unions to moderate their wage demands so as not to endanger the nation’s slowly improving economic situation.

At the same time, the Social-Democrat does not want to alienate his traditional union allies. So he is moderating his criticism of union demands and hoping analysts’ predictions come true that unions and employers will finally agree on a pay raise of around 3 percent.

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