Leading Union Slashes West German Workweek

WHO wouldn't be happy with a 35-hour workweek - and more pay to boot? The employer who had to pay for it, of course. But this is just what two major unions in West Germany have won.

West Germans already work fewer hours but are paid more than workers in any other European country. With the latest deal, they'll put even more distance between themselves and the rest of Europe.

This is exactly what depresses West German employers. ``We wanted no more reduction in work hours, but we got that anyway,'' says Peter Knevels, business manager of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations in Cologne.

Mr. Knevels, who specializes in labor negotiations, said that these latest settlements could hurt West German competitiveness when the economic borders fall in Europe at the beginning of 1993. ``We're not very happy,'' he added.

West German Economics Minister Helmut Haussmann is not smiling either. With reunification approaching, and with it a large demand for West German products, this is the time to work more, not less, he says.

The first victory for the workers came last Friday when powerful IG Metall, which represents 3.7 million metal workers in West Germany, worked out a deal in the Stuttgart district, the heart of West Germany's automobile industry. The agreement reduces the workweek to 36 hours in April 1993 and 35 hours in October 1995. Workers will receive a 6 percent wage increase (inflation is just under 3 percent).

This was followed by an agreement late Monday night between West German printers and IG Medien, the printers' union. IG Medien achieved a 35-hour workweek beginning a half year earlier than the metal workers' and with a higher pay increase, too - 6.8 percent.

About a third of the labor force here is unionized. The 35-hour workweek has been a longtime goal of IG Metall. Over the years it has managed to reduce the workweek from 40 hours down to 37. The union says a shorter workweek can create jobs in a time of high unemployment. The West German unemployment rate is 7.3 percent.

Knevels says the trend highlighted in the two latest labor agreements will spread to other industry sectors. Chemicals, textiles, and the service sector will probably be affected, he says: ``Maybe not this year, but in two, three, five years.''

The IG Metall agreement does include a clause, however, that allows workers to volunteer for a 40-hour week under certain conditions, Knevels says. There's even an opportunity for the union to retract the shorter workweek if it wants. But the IG Medien agreement doesn't include these clauses. ``It's much worse,'' he says.

So far, West German's celebrated productivity has paid for the fewer work hours and higher wages. But in some sectors, employers say, industry is already at the peak of its productivity. It simply can't force any more production out of its present capacity, they add.

This is why the threat of a strike has great leverage in this country. One thing employers can be grateful for, Knevels says, ``is that we avoided a long, drawn-out battle'' with the unions.

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