Facing Multiple Elections This Year, Germany's Kohl Seeks Labor Peace

IG Metall's 3.6 million union members want a 6 percent wage hike

GERMAN Chancellor Helmut Kohl is acting as an economic conciliator and an experienced defender of his country's national interests as he attempts to bolster his image among potential voters.

Germany faces 19 elections this year on the local, state, and national levels - including a federal parliamentary vote Oct. 16.

Many opinion polls have Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) trailing the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD).

One poll released late last week by the independent RTL television channel showed the SPD outpolling the CDU by a 46 percent to 29 percent margin.

Others project the gap between the two parties to be narrower.

Kohl's job of making up ground could be greatly facilitated by an economic recovery.

Some economists here are predicting slow growth this year, offering hope that Germany's worst recession since World War II is over. But such projections are threatened by labor unrest, and that has prompted Kohl to get involved.

``This is not the time to have a big conflict,'' Kohl said in a recent television interview, referring to a wage dispute between the powerful German metalworkers' union, IG Metall, and management.

Kohl added that a ``reasonable solution'' should be found.

Subsequently, IG Metall and management representatives announced that they will hold new wage negotiations today in the Rhineland city of Cologne.

Last week, IG Metall staged a series of warning strikes throughout western Germany. About 600,000 union members participated in the labor action that affected plants run by leading German industrial companies, including Siemens, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

Both sides say they want a deal, but they are currently separated by considerable differences.

IG Metall leaders have been demanding up to a 6 percent salary increase for the union's 3.6 million members, but have indicated they might settle for much less - around a 2 percent pay hike - in return for employment guarantees.

About 2.5 million workers are currently unemployment in western Germany, an alarmingly high level.

Meanwhile, the Gesamtmetall federation, which represents management, has been pushing for a wage freeze and a reduction in vacation benefits for employees.

Management says such Draconian wage measures are needed to lower production costs and keep German industry internationally competitive.

Rudolf Scharping, the Social Democrat leader and Kohl's main political rival, criticized the wage freeze stance, saying it might not help German economic recovery.

Mr. Scharping told a press luncheon that a wage freeze would deal a severe blow to domestic demand when a rise in consumption is needed to fuel the recovery.

IG Metall president Klaus Zwickel said management must show a willingness to compromise, otherwise the union will strike.

``The metalworkers have proven they are ready to fight,'' Reuters quoted Mr. Zwickel as saying in Frankfurt.

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