German metal unions predict strikes as negotiations break down

Confrontation between management and labor continues after a last-minute attempt at compromise in the West German metal and engineering industry failed Tuesday.

IG Metall union chairman Hans Mayr now says he sees no more chance of averting strikes. Management is saying it does not exclude lockouts.

The statements set off alarm signals here. The West German economy is finally pulling out of its three-year slump, with a 3 percent prognosis for real growth this year that would be the best in Europe, even if trailing the United States and Japan. A major strike at this point, warned the five economic institutes that presented this favorable forecast Monday, could reverse economic recovery.

The 2.7 million members of IG Metall, the world's largest free union, are split on whether their 1984 demand for reduction of the 40-hour workweek to 35 hours, with full pay, warrants a strike. But the more militant printing union IG Druck und Papier is stiffening the backbone of IG Metall. The printers have conducted several strikes in the past week in support of the 35-hour week.

In the conflict both IG Metall, the union pacesetter, and engineering and metal industry management have said they can be flexible in practice but not in stated principle. This makes any face-saving compromise difficult.

Some observers think possible elements of a compromise are at hand in the union's readiness to go for a gradual introduction of the 35-hour week and in management's offer of more free time for shift workers. But Mr. Mayr said Tuesday that the two sides were deadlocked on the question of principle of the 40-hour week in contracts for new workers.

In this test of will the union is relying on the fear of a prolonged recession to force concessions from management. It has sufficient funds to finance industrial action, and in the method of selective strikes practiced in West Germany it could probably get the required 75 percent strike vote in individual plants.

For its part management is relying on the desire of workers not to prolong recession to force union concessions. The stated aim of the 35-hour week is to create jobs by spreading existing work, and opinion polls suggest that those who have jobs themselves have only limited solidarity with those who don't, especially in a period of 9.3 percent unemployment. The economic institute's forecast for 1984 unemployment, if 3 percent growth can be achieved, is a drop to 9 percent, or 2.15 million.

The first public offer by metal and engineering management before negotiations broke down included earlier retirement, more free time, and a 3.3 percent increase in wages, or slightly better than the 3 percent inflation expected this year.

Earlier retirement - management's and the government's preferred alternative to the 35-hour week - would be available for senior workers at age 58, with pensions at 75 percent of gross pay. Shift workers would be given more free time , but this could not be termed a weakening of the regular 40-hour week.

Major strikes by IG Metall are not expected before Easter. The printing union has indicated it might coordinate strikes with IG Metall, as has the Trade, Banks, and Insurance Union. Other unions, including construction workers and the independent white-collar German Employees Union, have already accepted settlements that are in line with the engineering management offer.

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