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Why Germans are starting to strike – like the French

Day-care workers are on strike this week as Germany's model labor union system shows signs of unraveling.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / May 29, 2009

In Germany, tens of thousands of teachers, day-care and youth workers from Bremen to Munich took to the street this week.

Isabelle de Pommereau

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Frankfurt, Germany

Germans rarely strike. So when tens of thousands of teachers, day-care providers, and youth workers from Bremen to Munich took to the street this week, they did much more than disrupt the schedules of busy working parents.

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They broke with the consensual way in which employers and employees in postwar Germany have solved disputes over working conditions.

It is as though the rebellious streak in French workers next door has started to spill across the Rhine River.

"German is waking up," said Monika Lattki Thursday morning, demonstrating with hundreds of day-care workers in front of Frankfurt's city hall. The teachers say they are overburdened with red tape and suffer from health problems caused by their jobs, and are striking for more pay and more recognition. "We've reached our pain level."

Four strike days per year vs. 93 days

Such complaints may sound common in the US or elsewhere in Europe. But they're completely unorthodox here. Between 1998 and 2007, strikes in Germany cost employers an average of four work days per year, per thousand workers.

In France, the comparable figure is 93 days. In the US, it's 30.3 days. Denmark had the highest average number of days lost per year, 157.3 days, according to a study by the Hans Boeckler Foundation in Dusseldorf, the research arm of the German Confederation of Trade Unions.

After World War II, Germany did not want to repeat a situation where, during the Weimar Republic, competition between unions led to social unrest and contributed to the rise of National Socialism. Politicians created a legal infrastructure where unions would become partners with employers, and guarantors of democracy.

"In Germany, you have a postwar history of powerful unions that are a part and parcel of social partnership," says Lowell Turner, professor of international and comparative labor and collective bargaining at Cornell University in New York.

Germans put in place a system where unions negotiate pay and working conditions for entire sectors of the economy through collective bargaining.

Over the years, unions brought a shorter workweek, longer vacations, and better wages with no – or little – labor dispute for entire sectors of the economy. The standard of living in Germany has traditionally been higher in Germany than in France.

"The Germans have learned how to combine economic success with high wages and an extensive vocational training," says Professor Turner.

Confidence in German model erodes