How much more eyeball-to-eyeball must it get before labor and management are forced to a settlement? This is the question as the second week of strikes and the first week of lockouts escalate at a rate that could put an additional 11/2 million West Germans out of work by this weekend. More than 2 million are already unemployed in the aftermath of economic recession.
Put another way, the question going the rounds here is: Is West Germany, despite its tradition of labor peace, now in for a bout of ''British relations''?
Britain lost some 450 working days per thousand employees in industrial action in the decade between 1973 and 1982, while West Germany lost only some 25 .
Of the major industrialized Western nations, Japan was next best to West Germany (only 100), while the United States lost almost as many days as Britain. Italy had the worst record of all, with 1,200 days lost.
The West Germans don't really think they are about to lose their famous labor harmony and go in for British-type recrimination. But then neither did they expect that this year's dispute about lowering the 40-hour workweek to 35 hours would harden to its present confrontation.
Basically labor and management aren't all that far apart in the bellwether metal and engineering industry. But each side has staked its reputation on not yielding on the principle. Management insists on the 40-hour workweek; the unions insist on shortening it to 35. And, as neither side has wanted to lose face, the conflict has developed its own momentum.
The 2.6 million-strong IG Metall union attempted to make its initial strikes ''pinpricks that hurt.'' It first confined strikes by a few thousand workers to auto component manufacturers in the relatively prosperous North Baden-Wurttemberg region. This very quickly halted many auto assembly lines, and all the region's metal and engineering firms with more than 2,000 employees replied May 22 with lockouts of a total 105,000 workers (union figures).
The day before IG Metall had spread its selective strikes to the state of Hesse - for the first major strikes there in 33 years.
Sympathy strikes have been scheduled by the printing, chemical-paper-ceramic, postal, construction, public service, railroad, and possibly also textile unions - but not by the white-collar union that is not a member of the German Trade Union Federation. Further lockouts in Hesse have also been scheduled.
IG Metall is giving its jobless members 300 marks (about $115) per week strike or lockout pay, for an estimated total of 30 million marks ($11.5 million) for the week ending May 26 and up to 300 million marks ($115 million) the following week.
The size of the union's war chest is a closely kept secret, but management doubts it is higher than about 1 billion marks, or only enough for about three weeks of extensive strikes or lockouts.
Management tactics are therefore to wait out what is clearly a controversial strike among union members and the public. Employers hope that empty union coffers and workers' fear of losing jobs to technology in a period of 9 percent unemployment will swiftly induce resignations from the unions and increase pressure for a settlement.
The federal labor institute, under a mixed management, union, and government directorate, has made it clear that it will not ease IG Metall's financial burden. It has announced in advance that it interprets the law as meaning that it need not pay short-time unemployment benefits to any worker who is laid off in actions related to IG Metall's strike for a 35-hour week.
IG Metall, for its part, has announced that it cannot pay those who indirectly lose their jobs as a result of the metalworkers' strike. This means that an increasing number of workers are going to go without income as lockouts spread.
The next negotiating session between IG Metall and the metal and engineering industry management association was set for Thursday in Stuttgart. But there was no expectation it would reach a settlement at this meeting.
The center-right government, although it has sided publicly with management in opposing the 35-hour week, has lately been hinting that it would welcome some greater management flexibility so strikes don't endanger the fledgling economic recovery of the past several months.
Various compromises have been proposed by outsiders. In one form or another, they would all basically increase the present standard six-week vacation to something like eight weeks but let the extra leisure time be apportioned flexibly - and have the unions pay additional costs over the 3.3 percent wage hike that management is now offering.
Financially such schemes should be negotiable within the framework of the talks as they have developed.
Both sides, however, are still resisting yielding on the principle of the formal hours per workweek.