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West German metal workers threaten national strike for shorter workweek

By Wellington LongSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1984



Bonn

The possibility of a crippling strike by the 2.6 million members of the Metal Workers' Union looms following employers' refusal to lower the workweek from 40 to 35 hours without a corresponding cut in pay.

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The employers' associations allowed a Thursday afternoon deadline set by the union to expire without moving from their original position.

This followed the interruption of 71 regional negotiations between the union and associations of employers.

The national executive of the union is to meet in its Frankfurt headquarters April 9 to consider its next step.

The most radical choice open to the union is to call a national strike, a possibility it has been emphasizing with brief official warning strikes during the past two weeks.

But it could also ask for a meeting of the national leaders of both the union and the appropriate employers' organizations. Or it could seek mediation at the regional level.

It is unclear what the national executive will recommend, as the call for a reduction of the workweek to 35 hours is by no means unanimous or popular every-where.

The catering trades union, for instance, would like to lower the age of retirement by two or three years. So would the union of civil service employees.

In defense of its demand, the Metal Workers' Union claims that reduction of the workweek would create tens of thousands of new jobs and thus reduce unemployment, now hovering at about 10 percent.

Opponents of the scheme, including specifically the union of civil service employees, counter that employers would make up for the reduced workweek by introducing new labor-saving equipment or making everyone work more overtime.

Only by withdrawing workers completely from the work force through early retirement can new jobs be created, the civil service workers' union argues.

The row is being followed closely in all other European Community countries, but most particularly in France.

When the Socialists came to power there in 1981, they cut the workweek from 40 to 39 hours, with the announced aim of reducing it to 35 hours by 1985.

But as the economy turned down, the Socialists had to go slower than planned. Where the workweek has been further reduced, workers usually have had to take a corresponding cut in pay.

In West Germany, however, the Metal Workers' Union is not only rejecting a cut in pay corresponding to the proposed reduction in the workweek, but also demanding an increase to match the rate of inflation.