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East German workers strike to enforce pay deal: Employers blame the recession for breaking their promise of parity with the west by 1994, writes Steve Crawshaw in Bonn

BONN - Thousands of workers in the steel and engineering industries went on strike in eastern Germany yesterday - the first time they had been able to take legal industrial action for 60 years, writes Steve Crawshaw. The strike is in protest at the refusal of employers to honour a 26 per cent pay rise agreed in 1991. The employers say that, because of the recession, it is impossible to go ahead with the wage rises as planned.

Yesterday's strikes began near Berlin, at midnight, and on the early shift in several factories in Saxony. Speaking in Dresden, Saxony's capital, the leader of the powerful IG-Metall union, Franz Steinkuhler, said the strike stood solid, 'as one man'. Today, the strike is due to spread to the Baltic coast, to the region of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, including the port of Rostock. Next week, if no agreement has been reached, the strikes will spread to a third east German region, Thuringia.

German strikes do not, however, have quite the same confrontational tone still associated with industrial action in Britain. Before yesterday's strike began, union leaders talked ominously of action that 'could last for months'. But the strikes have been carefully targeted, and the union leaders are continuing intensive talks with the employers. Representatives from IG-Metall and the employers in Saxony agreed late last night to meet today to try to end the dispute.

Yesterday, around 30,000 workers were said to have joined the strike. The union described the mood as 'excellent'. Ulf Fink, deputy leader of Germany's equivalent of the TUC - himself a representative of the ruling Christian Democrats - emphasised the strikes had only started because of the employers' refusal to talk.

The wage rises should have taken effect last month, according to an agreement made in 1991, by which the wages in the east would gradually have been brought level with those in the west. The employers announced in February they were no longer able to honour the deal. At the moment, it seems the most likely outcome will be some form of compromise: employers and unions are looking for concessions, rather than victory. But Mr Steinkuhler warned yesterday that if no solution to the dispute was reached this week, there would be strike votes in western Germany, too, and the strikes would spread throughout eastern Germany.

Even if an agreement is reached, a new vote will be needed on ending the strikes; they are thus unlikely to finish before next week at the earliest.

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