Labor harmony restored to West Germany - at least until fall

Settlement of the 13-week printers' strike assures West Germany of two years - or at least three months - of labor peace. IG Druck printers' union members still have to vote July 10 and 11 on the terms of the proposed deal, which includes a flexible 38.5 workweek with a 2 percent wage rise next year on top of a 3.3 percent rise this year on the present 40-hour week.

But it is generally expected that the agreement - which closely follows the pattern of the metal workers' settlement a week earlier - will be approved.

In anticipation of this, the printers' strike ended July 8 and newspapers and magazines are now back to normal.

The seven-week metal workers' strike and the 13-week print workers' strike are commonly referred to here as the longest and costliest labor conflict in West Germany's post-World War II history. But this superlative itself illustrates just how much labor harmony prevailed here by comparison with other industrialized democracies.

Thus this spring's confrontation - although it leaves some bitterness behind - never approached the hostility of, say, the current British coal miners' strike. It got resolved before the crucial deadline of summer vacation. It set a precedent for labor contracts not on an industrywide level but on a firm-by-firm basis - a recipe for moderation, given union knowledge of company finances from their role on company boards (known as co-determination).

And even this longest, costliest strike won't dent Germany's record as second best among developed countries in losing the least time to strikes in the past 10 years. From 1973 to 1982, West Germany lost only a quarter of the working days Japan lost per capita, or 1/7th of French, 1/14th of American and British losses from industrial stoppages.

The metal and engineering and print settlements give management a two-year breathing space before the union demand of a 35-hour week may again be presented. The pacts keep wage hikes (at least in the metal and engineering industry) in line with productivity increases. They give workers - in a trade-off for monetary increases that for the fourth and fifth years in a row will not exceed inflation - their desired weekly free time.

Current estimates are that this year's projected West German economic growth of 3 to 3.5 percent will be pulled down by the strikes and lockouts to 2.5 to 3 percent real growth. The latest government statistics show production in late April and May up 2.5 percent over a year ago, but down 2.5 percent from production in February and March. Auto production dropped 18 percent in May.

In the near term, the possibility remains that next fall's wage dispute in the public sector could turn into another major labor battle. The public service and train and postal unions want wage hikes and a 35-hour week, while the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl has targeted zero wage and salary growth in the public sector in a very tight budget. Some union members are ready to strike illegally in support of their demands.

The more general expectation, however, is that the model of peaceful settlement in the engineering, printing, and other private industries will now have a calming influence on negotiations in the public sector.

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