Germans face new wave of strike disruption

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The Independent Online
Like punch-drunk boxers after a long fight, union bosses and representatives of the German government squared up yesterday for the fourth and decisive round of a confrontation that has wrought havoc in the last three days.

In Stuttgart, where leaders of public employees' trade unions sat down with government officials for what promised to be a long night of beer and Bratwurst, 3,000 noisy activists provided the guard of honour. "Hands off sick pay," their most militant banners implored, shunning the union's forlor demand for a 4.5 per cent pay rise.

Whether the workers will settle for the nought per cent for the next two years offered by the government will depend on their ability to badger the authorities into submission, with the biggest wave of public- sector strikes in four years.

On yesterday's evidence they have a long way to go. Rubbish rotted in front of houses unaffected earlier in the week. More than 5 million letters were left uncollected as postal workers struck in eight cities. In Hamburg, refuse workers blocked entrances to the city's port.

But in Berlin, a five-hour strike on the city's underground trains and buses failed to bring rush-hour traffic to a halt. Commuters took to the one service running normally, the rickety but super-efficient S-Bahn, run by the national railway company, and were only slightly delayed. "I was busier than usual, but not as busy as I had expected," complained a Berlin taxi driver.

But the government is aware that these are only "warning strikes". The two sides are at an impasse, and only when talks break down irrevocably can the unions mobilise all their members, as happened in 1992, when public employees stayed at home for 11 days.

Union leaders, on the other hand, cannot be certain that they can deliver the same degree of militancy in today's climate of recession. Some 200,000 people have lost their jobs in the public sector in the past four years, and another 200,000 will be receiving redundancy notices between now and 1998.

Herbert Mai, leader of the Public Services and Transport Union, OTV, gave little away as he entered the room yesterday, but his organisation seemed to be back-pedalling. The government's austerity programme is committed to no pay rise for public employees, so the union leaders have banished all numbers from their vocabulary.

Mr Mai has shifted his focus to other elements in the government package: a 20 per cent cut in sick pay and an extension of working hours.

Public employees work a 38.5-hour week in the west, and 40 hours in eastern Germany. The search is on for a fudge that costs the budget nothing, but can be sold to Mr Mai's members as a victory. If it is not found, Germany is in for a hot summer.