Closed on Sunday? Shopkeepers rebel

Two Sundays in a row, Germany's shopkeepers defied strict labor laws.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Eberhard Wolff stands, fuming, inside his mahogany-paneled luxury goods shop on Berlin's busy Potzdamer Platz.

"I have to get permission from the Bundestag [the German parliament] to open my shop when I want to," he says, lamenting tight state controls over business hours. "We must get rid of this ridiculous law."

Like hundreds of other retailers in this country of 80 million, Mr. Wolff, dubbed the "rebel of Potzdamer Platz" by the local media, is on a crusade to change Germany's strict rules on when a store must close.

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Tight restrictions

Germany's labor laws are among the most restrictive in Europe. Britain and Sweden did away with their Sunday laws in recent years, and most other European states are following suit.

The issue Wolff champions has dominated German media. On Aug. 2, banner headlines described the previous day's scene at AG Kaufhof am Alex, a large department store in eastern Berlin - where the owner decided to violate national law and open his doors on Sunday.

Shoppers crammed the aisles of Kaufhof that day, making it one of the most successful in months.

The store was fined 50,000 marks (about $27,000) for breaking the Ladenschlussgesetz, the shop-closing laws. It requires retail shops to close by 8 p.m. on week nights, 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and to close all day Sunday.

Managers at Kaufhof helped to politicize the opening by affixing a sticker on every item in the shop, declaring them to be "Berlin souvenirs." Under the Ladenschluss, stores selling items for "touristic purposes only" can open on Sundays.

But in a country where everyone from children to body-pierced anarchists waits patiently at crosswalks until the light changes, the law inspires none of the outrage among consumers that might accompany similar restrictions in the United States.

"This all has to do with the German authoritarian tradition," says Thomas Schmid, opinion editor for the national daily, Die Welt. "There's an old German fear that says if things aren't organized in a strong way, there will be chaos as a result."

Until a few years ago, if the issue was debated at all, the focus was on the rights of employees. Consumers weren't factored into the equation. So far, the debate has raged mainly among business leaders, unions, and the church.

A look at US approach

As Germany struggles with persistently high unemployment - 10.3 percent in July - some business leaders say a more American-style customer-oriented approach would improve the economy and create jobs.

"The most important thing is service," says Hartwig Schulte-Loh, manager of Kaufhof's sister store, Kulturkaufhaus. "We can learn a lot from the Americans."

Union and church officials disagree. Leaders of the Protestant and Catholic churches, Germany's predominant faiths, have warned of an "orgy of consumerism" if the laws are changed.

"Leave America to the Americans," says Manfred Birkhahn, Berlin chairman of the HBV, the union that represents trade, banking, and insurance workers. "In Germany, the protection of workers has always been a priority. Parents need to be at home with the children, and families need to be together in the evenings and weekends.

Mr. Birkhahn also worries that "mom and pop" stores could be ruined if Sunday opening is permitted. "Smaller shops do not have enough turnover to sustain a seven-day work week," he says. "The big department stores will crush them if these laws change.

The controversy doesn't only pit business interests against labor, or secularists versus the church. It also reflects the deep divisions between East and West.

Shops in eastern Berlin and eastern Germany - not used to Sunday closures under Communist rule - have been the most egregious lawbreakers.

Berlin's municipal government has done little to curb violators, and the government in the eastern state of Saxony plans to file a motion calling for the dismantling of Ladenschluss at the end of September.

Chancellor Gerhard Schrder, a member of the Social Democratic Party and traditionally a friend of labor, has yet to take a public position on the controversy. He is waiting for the results of a study that will determine the potential impact of easing the restrictions.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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