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Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Germany faces labor discontent

NEGOTIATIONS Searching for consensus has long been the norm in Germany, but with companies suddenly playing hardball, labor is responding with new outrage

AFP , FRANKFURT

The knives seem to be out for a major labor conflict in Germany this summer as industry bosses and unions got nasty this week in the battle over working hours, paid holidays and even the country's fabled system of sector-wide wage negotiations.

In a harbinger of what could become a summer of discontent, more than 60,000 DaimlerChrysler employees stopped work in a concerted day of protest on Thursday to voice their anger over what they saw as management's strong-arm tactics to push through cost-cutting measures.

The stoppages continued on Friday and Saturday.

threats

The German-US auto giant threatened to shift 6,000 jobs from its main plant in Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart, to South Africa if unions did not agree to 500 million euros (US$615 million) in cuts.

But it was less management's demands per se than the way in which they were made, effectively slamming the door on the gentlemanly German tradition of reaching agreement by consensus, that has got the unions' backs up.

"This is war!" and "No to blackmail by DaimlerChrysler!" read placards brandished by employees at Thursday's demonstrations.

"Unfortunately, DaimlerChrysler has joined the growing crowd of free-riders who think it's time to play on employees' fears in order to get what they want," said the deputy chief of the powerful IG Metall labor union, Berthold Huber.

Industry bosses in Germany were "jeopardizing social and economic stability, as well as the nascent economic recovery, with their short-sighted actions," Huber warned.

`flexibility'

Company bosses appear to have embarked on a multi-pronged offensive to achieve increased flexibility on the labor markets, where the government's reform efforts are progressing only very slowly.

Electronics giant Siemens started the ball rolling when it said it would reintroduce the 40-hour week at two of its key factories in return for a promise not to shift jobs abroad.

Other companies, including trucks maker MAN and car parts maker Bosch, quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

And suddenly, everyone was not only talking about extending the work week, but cutting short Germans' generous holiday entitlements as well.

The threat was always the same -- accept the company's conditions, or jobs would be shifted abroad.

And the same tactic was used of belittling or ridiculing the unions' claims.

pee break

In the case of DaimlerChrysler, the unions were portrayed as focusing their fight on the defense of a worker's right to take a five-minute "pee break" once every hour.

In the case of Siemens, chairman Heinrich von Pierer played the guilty conscience card.

"Is the world going to come to an end if a few people have to work 40 hours a week again, something which many people do already?" he asked.

"Almost everywhere else in the world, people work longer hours than we do," he said, suggesting Germans could take a leaf out of China's or Hungary's book, where employees "work like fanatics, a lot harder and more tenaciously than we do."

But the unions are not alone in their criticism of the way industry is conducting itself.

Prominent politicians on both sides of the spectrum voiced their distaste at DaimlerChrysler's heavy-handed tactics.

"It's repulsive to exert pressure on employees by issuing ultimatums," said the president of the German parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, a member of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat party.

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