German unions limber up for summer strikes

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Thousands of commuters were stranded across Germany yesterday morning as public employees walked out at the start of what the unions hope will be their summer of discontent.

In 145 towns and cities of the western Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, rush-hour traffic was gridlocked along all main roads. Postal workers went on strike in other parts of the country, Berlin's kindergarten teachers deliberately turned up late for work and refuse collectors in southern Germany gave their morning round a miss. Less noticeable was the shut- down of town halls, crippled by militant bureaucrats.

More disruption is on the way as the Public Services and Transport Union (OTV) prepares to mobilise its 1.8 million members in support of a 4.5 per cent pay increase. The 14 other member organisations of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) are limbering up for sympathy action, starting with a rally in Bonn today.

It is a test of strength the government cannot afford to lose. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's austerity programme aims to lop50bn marks (pounds 21.7bn) off the budget, primarily by freezing salaries in the public sector and cutting social spending.

The OTV is also aggrieved by government plans to increase its members' hours and reduce the Christmas bonus, which usually amounts to one month's pay.

The other unions accuse the government of trying to roll back the welfare state and of reneging on an agreement to help create two million jobs by 2000. In an effort to prepare Germany for European Monetary Union, the Chancellor is cutting sick pay and unemployment benefit, raising the pension age and abolishing laws protecting workers at small companies.

Union resistance poses the greatest threat to his policies. In 1992, the OTV paralysed the country with an 11-day strike by bringing public transport to a halt and allowing rubbish to pile up on the streets.

The spectre of such disruption looms again, as OTV leaders prepare for a fourth round of pay talks tomorrow with government representatives. The union is still in a conciliatory mood as the OTV's leader, Herbert Mai, has indicated. "We do not want a strike but want results," Mr Mai said. "We demand a 4.5 per cent wage increase but at the end of negotiations there is always a compromise. But there is little sign of that being reciprocated by the government side."

Wolfgang Schauble, parliamentary leader of the governing Christian Democrats, said: "We will push this programme through parliament together."

For once, his fighting words were directed not at his adversaries in the unions but to the enemy within. The government's combative posture has sown discord even among Christian Democrat MPs, some of whom are threatening to vote against the programme.

But the Chancellor's room for compromise is shrinking as fast as his government's deficit scales uncharted heights. The latest figures suggest even the DM50bn cut will not be enough to bring the shortfall below the 3 per cent of GDP allowed in the Maastricht treaty. Poor economic performance is expected to deprive the state coffers of DM80bn in tax revenue next year.

Under these circumstances, anything more than a pay freeze for public employees would be regarded as a humiliating government climb-down, and would fatally undermine Germany's credibility in Europe.

A little union trouble at home seems a small price to pay for forestalling the collapse of monetary union.