The meeting in Wixhausen, south of Frankfurt, was one of dozens by angry workers across western Germany yesterday, as warning strikes continued against a proposed new deal that would mean a reduction in real wages of at least 10 per cent.
The employers want what they describe as a below-zero round - not just a wage freeze but a cut or removal of the guaranteed holiday bonus, which amounts to around an extra month's salary.
The unions launched the series of short strikes this week, in an attempt at least to force the employers back to the negotiating table. But the employers seem determined not to budge. The employers' organisation, which negotiates collectively with the IG-Metall union, representing engineering workers in plants across Germany, is eager to force through tougher terms than ever before, in a way that would have been unthinkable in earlier, less recessionary times. Hans-Joachim Gottschol, head of the employers' organisation Gesamtmetall, said yesterday that the employers saw no reason to make 'the wrong wage settlement'.
The mood among the workers is sullen as much as angry. Few are convinced that they can win. Yesterday, 90,000 took part in the strikes all across western Germany, bringing the total figure who have participated in this week's strikes to around a quarter of a million.
At a Siemens plant at Fechenheim, on the edge of Frankfurt - one of hundreds of plants which were asked to take part in yesterday's strikes - the majority of the 1,000-odd workers came out for two hours yesterday. But there was much gloom in front of the factory gates. 'I think there'll be a few warning strikes and that'll be it, ' said Friedrich Schweppe. Even the greatest optimists do not expect to save both the holiday bonus and get the 5.5 per cent pay rise IG-Metall is officially demanding.
At present, average monthly wages in the engineering sector are around DM4,000 ( pounds 1,600). In addition, the holiday bonus, now under threat, provides a thirteenth month's pay and the Christmas bonus provides a fourteenth month - a total equivalent of around pounds 22,000 a year. One Siemens worker took a fatalistic view: 'I think they are hoping that we will go on strike for a few weeks, so they do not have to pay us. Then they will settle for what they were already planning to offer but without having to pay us for the period of the strike.'
The first day of strikes provided the main front-page story in most of the broadsheet dailies, on the same day that the BMW purchase of Rover, a reminder of the underlying strength of the German economy, was relegated to the inside pages. Now, however, the strikes have been squeezed out of the headlines, for example, by protracted negotiations over a proposed new nursing-care insurance package.
'Paws off our holiday bonuses' was one typical slogan at Wixhausen yesterday, while another described the holiday money as 'taboo'. There is enormous bitterness at the employers' determination to cut benefits that have existed for years. One line of argument is that higher pay - 'greater purchasing power' - is essential for the smooth running of the economy. In the words of one speaker at yesterday's rally, 'they don't realise that workers should be in a position to buy cars, fridges and other products. If people are paid less, that only worsens the crisis.' Despite the rhetoric, however, all sides are acutely aware that German labour costs are higher than elsewhere in Europe, let alone in the Far East.
Some workers in Wixhausen claimed yesterday that the fight would be tougher on this occasion than in past years, when the question was how much pay should increase, and not how little it should be cut. If the employers do not come back to the negotiating table, the 3.4million-strong union could hold a ballot on full-scale strikes. But there may not be much stomach for a fight. One union leader in Wixhausen talked yesterday of the current strikes as a 'turning point'. It seems unlikely to be a turning point in the unions' favour. Rather, at a time when the threat of further job losses is real, it may be a time when the unions are forced to acknowledge their first major defeat.
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