German metal strike ballot called: Union aims opening blow of wages campaign at unimportant region

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The Independent Online
WESTERN Germany lurched closer to industrial action in the key engineering industry yesterday, as IG Metall called a strike ballot for the beginning of March. But the gauntlet hurled down by the union was heavily swathed in velvet, as IG Metall targeted the relatively unimportant industrial region of Lower Saxony for the ballot and therefore the opening of the strike campaign.

'This is a deliberately limited signal. We want a small strike, not a conflagration, because we hope a small strike will be sufficient,' Klaus Zwickel, IG Metall's leader, said. Confident of getting the necessary 75 per cent support for industrial action, Mr Zwickel said a strike would probably begin on 7 March.

If, within the following two weeks, a compromise with the employers over wages has not been reached, the campaign will be extended to the northern coastal region, including Bremen and Hamburg, again relatively small areas.

By not choosing the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr or Baden- Wurttemberg, IG Metall has signalled that it does not want a head- on confrontation that would be deeply unpopular in recession- struck times.

'We have clearly chosen areas where there are no car makers or suppliers, so as to limit the potential knock-on effects of stoppages,' Jorg Barczynski, IG Metall's spokesman, said.

While Volkswagen is situated in Lower Saxony, it will not be affected by any strike action as it has its own in-house wage negotiations. The stoppages will initially target firms in the engineering and domestic appliance industries. 'The strike firms will be carefully selected, and no company which is in real difficulty will be hit,' Mr Barczynski said.

Hans-Joachim Gottschol, head of the employers' association, Gesamtmetall, appealed to the union to abandon what he called the dangerous notion of strike action and return to negotiations. 'Strikes cannot be successful in a recession,' he said.

Lower Saxony is also the state that opens this year's busy electoral calendar, with elections on 13 March. IG Metall may be hoping that the Social Democratic-led state government will exert maximum pressure to achieve an early solution.

Mr Zwickel ruled out the prospect of mediation before the strike begins but said the union was open to talks once the employers presented new proposals. He warned Gesamtmetall against carrying out its threat of lock-outs. 'This will not shorten the strike, but highly politicise it,' he said.

Mr Zwickel said IG Metall's war chest was sufficiently full to fund stoppages of several weeks, despite a cost of DM41m ( pounds 16.4m) a week for every 100,000 striking workers. Conceding that times were not good for union radicalism, with job losses running at some 30,000 a month in the engineering industry, Mr Zwickel said: 'Our members know this is not a matter of wanting or not wanting to strike, but about the value of defending wage contracts which safeguard wages and conditions.'