West German labor: little unrest despite joblessness

Social harmony is alive and well in West Germany. That, despite the advent of a conservative government last fall and the rise of unemployment to 2.4 million, or 9.8 percent, in the March seasonally unadjusted figures.

Thus the initial wage increase settlements this spring are running at 3.2 or 3.3 percent, or barely above the expected inflation rate. And the center-right government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl is keeping to a minimum the welfare cuts that everyone agrees had to come in this prolonged recession.

Further evidence of the moderation of West German trade unions can be found in the loss of only 11,344 man-days to strikes last year - the lowest figure in more than 30 years. And last year's election of middle-of-the-road leaders to the presidencies of four of the country's largest unions and to five out of nine executive-committee seats that were up for election in the (West) German Trade Union Federation supports this trend.

The argument could be made that it is unemployment that subdued the workers into accepting a drop in their real incomes in wage settlements in 1981 and 1982 , and no wage increases this year. And this is true in part. But unemployment was only at a little more than 1 million when the 1981 wage packets were signed. The far more common prediction then - with memories of the 1920s and '30s - was that rising unemployment might trigger radicalism among workers. That has not happened.

Similarly, earlier fears that polarization in West German society might follow social cuts by a new conservative government after 13 years of pro-welfare, left-Liberal government have not materialized.

On the government side, the avoidance of confrontation is due largely to the minister of labor and social affairs, Norbert Blum, a former metalworker and union member. Mr. Blum made a controversial start with an unexpected call for a six-month price and income freeze. Now he is widely seen as fighting within the government for as small (and fair) a trim as possible in the pensions, family, sickness, and student benefits, and other social welfare that currently take more than 29 percent of gross domestic product.

The unions, for their part, want to avoid confrontation because of the heavy entrepreneurial stakes they have in the existing system - including the large trade-union bank, the union's scandal-ridden housing firm, Neue Heimat, insurance funds, codetermination supervisory boards and works councils in every company with more than 2,000 employees, and even radio- and television-program commissions.

This interwoven net means the unions see a real common interest in creating investment incentives to lift the economy out of its two-year decline. It means too that when the 2.5 million workers in the metalworkers' union, which is Europe's largest, negotiate a modest 3.2 percent wage hike as they did this year , this quickly sets the pace for the rest of the 40 percent unionized labor force that determines 90 percent of wage settlements through collective bargaining.

Potential dangers threaten West Germany's social harmony, of course. Unemployment is projected to rise to a seasonal 3 million (about 12.2 percent) by next December. This will probably still run several percentage points behind unemployment in Britain, France, and Italy, but it will still be very unsettling for West Germans.

Worse still, youth unemployment is soaring. The early sixties' baby-boom offspring are coming of age; no new jobs have been generated in West Germany over the past decade and a half. (There were 25.5 million jobs in 1967, 25.3 million in 1980.) Until last July, unemployment among youth lagged behind average unemployment, but now exceeds average unemployment by a small margin and will exceed it by a much larger amount come graduation time.

The union proposals for combating unemployment include large-scale public investments and the shortening of the work week to 35 hours, with existing work being shared among more wage earners.

The first is ruled out by the government. The second stands a somewhat greater chance for adoption. But it would have to be forced through against stiff management resistance. This spring the chemicals, paper, and ceramics workers' union did negotiate a gradual reduction of the work week for older employees. However, if the bellwether metalworkers' union tries to get a 35-hour week for more than just older employees in next year's bargaining - as it is considering doing - this could trigger confrontation and lead to a major strike.

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