As West German metalworkers enter their fourth week of strikes, there is still no compromise in sight. The confrontation over the 35- vs. 40-hour workweek is taking on aspects of a ''religious war,'' warned the Augsburg Allgemeine newspaper May 31.
Actually, both labor and management are keeping the strikes and lockouts limited. Only some 58,000 workers in Baden-Wurttemberg and Hesse are on strike at this point, only some 90,000 locked out. The total number idled is about 250, 000, considerably fewer than had been projected earlier. This includes those on paid but compulsory holiday because not enough components are arriving to keep assembly lines running in automobile and a few other plants.
But the quantitative restraint in West Germany's unaccustomed labor conflict is not matched by restraint in the substantive negotiations. The talks have been broken off at this point. There is not yet any move to appeal to mediation. The duel has been carried to the courts.
The Frankfurt labor court has ruled the management lockouts illegal in Hesse, because of state legislation forbidding them. Management has appealed on the grounds that if labor can strike, then management must have a corresponding capacity to lock workers out, so that both sides are equal. This reasoning led a superior court to permit ''proportional'' lockouts four years ago, but no comprehensive judicial ruling on the subject has yet been issued.
As the strikes go on, the economy is beginning to dip. The Frankfurt Stock Exchange has hit its lowest point since last November. And management is arguing that further prolongation of the strikes could take half a percentage point from this year's projected 2.5 to 3 percent growth.
Before the most recent negotiating effort broke down, management did offer to reduce shift workers' total hours per week down to 38 in two stages. The IG Metall union rejected this as affecting only 14 percent of total metal and engineering workers. Both sides are still refusing to yield on the formal principles of the 35-hour week (labor's goal) and 40-hour week (management's) as the norm.