West Germany's shorter workweek: potential gains and losses

Having finally broken through the barrier of the 40-hour workweek, most members of West Germany's metal workers' union should be back at work tomorrow morning.

They will have been on strike seven weeks, idling altogether more than 450, 000 persons. They forced most West German automobile plants and suppliers of components to close, affecting car production in France and Italy as well, and put a crimp both in retail sales in Germany and in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's anticipated economic turnaround.

IG Metall, with 2.6 million members, is the largest labor organization in the non-communist world and the pacesetter in Germany. It ordered the strike in support of its demand that the workweek be reduced to 35 hours with no cut in pay by 1988.

Although the metal workers' union has settled for less than it wanted, it has eliminated the 40-hour standard adopted in 1968. Management has agreed to reduce the workweek to 38.5 hours next April with no cut in pay. The union can reopen the hours question in October 1986. The workweek probably will be similarly reduced in most other industries.

Management says the most important thing in the settlement from its point of view is its new ability to schedule working times more flexibly.

Some owners had hoped they could return to the six-day week, thus making better use of equipment. But there never seemed to be a serious chance for such a give-back by the union.

The new agreement confirms the five-day week. But it also stipulates that the 38.5 hour week can be averaged over a period of two months.

The union claims that reducing the workweek will force employers to hire more workers, thus making a significant contribution toward reducing the army of 2 million jobless. Whether and to what degree this will be the case will be demonstrated only in practice. It is obvious that the reduced workweek will be further incentive to increase the use of robots.

Some think a clause in the agreement permitting older employees to take early retirement at a reduced pension will create more job openings than the shorter week.

The conflict in the printing trades probably will be the next to be resolved, on the metal workers' pattern. The print workers' union has been striking sporadically for three months. Most newspapers have lost several editions or been forced to make do with emergency four-page issues without ads. With pickets blocking the exits from the plants, even some of the emergency issues could not be delivered.

On one occasion the Frankfurter Allge-meine Zeitung used a helicopter to lift about 350,000 copies over the heads of picketers.

Germany's European Community allies are watching the new employment arrangements closely to see how they work, particularly if they function better than the 39-hour workweek decreed by France in 1982. Apparently that action has satisfied neither employer nor employee.

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