German vote to extend strike

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BONN - East German workers have voted overwhelmingly to extend their strikes, which are already by far the biggest in the east since German unity and which have brought much of the steel industry to a halt, writes Steve Crawshaw.

Hundreds of thousands demonstrated yesterday in support of the strikes, including dozens of solidarity protests that took place in the west. The employers, and the Bonn government, have continued in recent days to insist that the workers are about to back down, and that agreement is near. But the strikers' vote - more than 80 per cent in favour of broadening the strikes, on a 96 per cent turnout - appears to give the lie to that optimistic view.

East German anger is considerable, and will be difficult to dampen. Solidarity demonstrations in western Germany yesterday included those by 25,000 workers at the Volkswagen plant at Wolfsburg, and 7,000 in the industrial town of Duisburg, as well as dozens of smaller actions. Partly, the west German workers are offering support to their east German colleagues; partly, they fear they could be next in line if the employers continue to take a tough line on wages.

Even now, however, the heart of the strike will continue to be in the east. Franz Steinkuhler, leader of the IG- Metall union that is co-ordinating the strike, warned of 'conflagration' if the employers fail to offer a compromise. Talks are due to resume today, in an effort to resolve the deadlock over the employers' refusal to honour a 26 per cent pay rise that was promised in 1991, as part of a gradual levelling-off of western and eastern wages.

The government, which has backed the employers' tough stance, may now face a no-win situation. If the strikers force the employers to make large concessions, that will be humiliating for employers and government alike. If, on the other hand, the strikers' will is broken, then the bitterness in the east will be considerable. With elections due next year, that could prove politically disastrous.

The government and the employers use purely economic arguments against the strikes, saying that the promised pay rises, if fulfilled, would only lead to the loss of more jobs. But east Germans - who pay western prices but earn around half as much as west German workers - argue that they are dispossessed and betrayed. Most easterners feel the west is refusing to share its wealth; many westerners, by contrast, feel the east Germans are greedy for too much, too soon.