Bonn — West Germany - in which labor harmony is a habit - is teetering on the brink of what could be its worst labor conflict since World War II. The main issue is the union demand for reduction of the present 40-hour workweek to 35 hours at full present pay.
The engineering and metalworkers union, IG Metall, the largest union in the world and the traditional pacesetter in the spring round of wage talks, is pausing before plunging into major strikes.
After a 5 1/2-hour meeting Monday, its executive committee postponed until Tuesday its final decision on whether to go ahead with a strike vote among its 2 .5 million members or seek one last negotiating session with management.
On Monday the construction union did agree to forgo a reduction in weekly working hours in exchange for industry's offer of early retirement and a 3.3 percent raise as of April 1.
The more militant Printing and Paper Union, by contrast, said its 60,000 members would proceed with both pre-announced and surprise strikes in individual newspapers. The latter action is a new tactic made possible by a change in union rules last fall that permits strikes without a prior ballot among union members.
As this week's midnight hour approaches, both sides are still hanging tough publicly. IG Metall has let it be known that it has a sizable war chest this year - unlike its last strike year of 1978 - to finance industrial action. And for its pressure, management is relying on workers' and the public's lack of enthusiasm for strikes at a time of West Germany's highest-ever unemployment.
Both sides fly the banner of combating unemployment, which last month reached 2.4 million persons jobless. IG Metall, the printers union, and the currently negotiating Trade, Bank, and Insurance Union - with the belated endorsement with the umbrella Trade Union Federation - claim that shorter working hours would help spread existing work among more people and create new jobs.
Management counters that shaving five hours off the current week would only increase employers' costs and cut their investment, stifle this year's economic recovery, and speed up the obsolescence of jobs through automation.
Many West Germans find this reasoning persuasive: 73 percent of them oppose the 35-hour week, according to a recent ZDF television opinion poll, and many union members are at best lukewarm about the idea. One poll by Emnid Research Institute further indicated that only one-fifth of IG Metall members are willing to go on strike for a 35-hour week.
This has encouraged the center-right government in Bonn to press for its own alternative: optional early retirement with government financing where such retirement will lead to the vacated job actually being given to someone else rather than being discontinued. Legislation to this effect was passed at the end of March.
The opposition Social Democrats, by contrast, endorse the union demand for a 35-hour workweek.
The chances for a compromise seem to rest on finding a face-saving way to accommodate the unions' demand for a workweek reduction in principle with management's determination to increase flexibility in work hours only on a case-by-case basis.
IG Metall in particular is groping to find the right balance. On the one hand , younger labor leaders want to show their fire after a couple of years of accepting a drop in real wages when the German economy was not growing.
On the other, they know they would have a hard time mobilizing the vote for an effective strike of any duration.