Bonn — For the first time in 10 years, a West German labor dispute - in the key metal and engineering industry - went to arbitration June 20. At the same time, management and unions in the print industry began mediation in the 11th week of selective strikes in that branch. And the country's second largest union (after the IG Metall and the Engineering Union), the Public Service and Transport Union (OTV) met in convention to decide if it would emulate the metal and print workers in striking for a reduction in the standard 40-hour work week.
There are some hints that IG Metall - which has spearheaded the fight for the 35-hour week in its six weeks of selective strikes - might now be willing to shift to a yearly rather than a weekly calculation of worktime. If so, the way could be opened for settlement, since management has all along indicated it could be flexible in vacation or other leisure time so long as the principle of the 40-hour week was maintained.
A yearly basis of reckoning could leave management claiming that it had kept the 40-hour week - and leave the unions claiming that they had won, say, a 39- or 38-hour week as totaled over 52 weeks.
The famous old West German system of labor harmony through joint coordination by unions, management, and the government is long gone. Its demise was accentuated this year by the center-right government's public siding with management on the 40-hour week from the very beginning.
In the present impasse, unions and management are again appealing to politicians for help - but the politicians they are turning to are mavericks, and not representatives of the government.
The selective strikes and retaliatory lockouts have so far idled some 400,000 workers. The strikers are being paid by their unions, and a fair number of those locked out are being paid for compulsory ''vacation'' time.
But the economy is beginning to suffer, government spokesmen are saying, and might not recover to its expected 2.5 percent growth this year if the strikes continue much longer. The Economics Ministry estimated losses so far as close to 4 billion deutsche marks ($1.5 billion).
The unpopularity of the strikes is by now bringing considerable pressure on the unions. Opinion polls repeatedly demonstrate that the public - and even many union members - don't think that it would create new jobs as the union leaders have argued. The especially poor showing of the union-linked Social Democrats in the European parliamentary vote June 17 in Baden-Wurttemberg, the state hardest hit by the metalworkers' strikes, suggests electoral consequences as well.