IG Metall heads towards German engineering strike

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The Independent Online
THE countdown to full-blown confrontation in Germany's key engineering sector gathered pace yesterday as calls came from IG Metall's regional federations in favour of industrial action.

This makes it likely that the trade union's executive board will hold a strike ballot when it meets in Frankfurt on Monday. Voting would probably take place at the beginning of next month, enabling a strike campaign to get under way from 7 March.

Should it come to a full strike, the industrial action is likely to be limited initially to just one region. German strikes are precision campaigns, with pressure slowly increased as different areas are targeted.

Despite its wealth, IG Metall would find it hard to sustain a full- scale strike for long, since changes to the industrial relations legislation now place a much heavier financial burden on the union.

IG Metall is likely to focus on two regions: North-Rhine/Westphalia, encompassing the Ruhr industrial heartland, where the greatest pressure from hard-pressed small and medium-sized firms - Mittelstand - will be placed on the employers' federation to take a tough line, and Baden-Wurttemberg, which would pitch IG Metall head on against giants such as Daimler-Benz.

The rhetoric has become increasingly belligerent. Neither side appears willing to propose new talks, and both say a strike is increasingly likely. The anxiousness of the employers, especially the Mittelstand - 80 per cent of members of the employers' federation have fewer than 200 workers - to cut costs, and the equal determination of the union to prevent what it sees as the destruction of hard-won gains in the past decade, have strained the negotiations.

Behind the tough posturing, however, there are signs that the worst may be avoided. With unemployment swelling at the rate of 30,000 a month in the western engineering sector, and many firms, notably in the automotive and machine tool industries living a precarious existence, there is little stomach for a fight to the finish.

Important elements of compromise have emerged. The employers seem ready to accept cuts in working hours as a legitimate tool of job preservation, while the union appears willing to forego most compensation for less work.

There also seems to be general accord on a seasonal extension of working time beyond the 36-hour weekly average, which employers are keen to secure. Employers have also pulled back from their initial call to scrap holiday bonus pay and appear ready to give some form of employment safeguards in return for cost savings.

The original employer demand for a wage freeze has also gone. IG Metall, Germany's flagship union with 3.2 million members, is unlikely to settle for less than the chemical workers, who won a rise of 1.6 per cent in 1994.

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