Germany Stares Down Maw of Union Protests Against Budget Cuts

Kohl tries to get ready for Euro-currency

Mail is going unsorted, garbage is sitting uncollected, and rush-hour buses are failing to rush anywhere. These latest German "warning" strikes may not compare to the dramatic public-transport strikes that ground France to a halt last December, but for consensus-minded Germans they are bad enough.

Such brief disturbances of the social peace are only one sign of the difficulties facing Chancellor Helmut Kohl's economic program. The plan is intended to cut government spending by more than $16 billion to get Germany financially ready for the launch of the common European currency in 1999.

Another wave of warning strikes is expected this week. After three fruitless rounds of talks, the public-sector union OTV and negotiators from the Interior Ministry are scheduled to try for a collective bargaining agreement again in Stuttgart Wednesday.

The union is insisting on a 4.5 percent wage hike. And the Interior Ministry, the public workers' negotiating partner, has simply kept presenting its list of demands for concessions, such as longer hours for the workers and cutbacks in holiday bonuses and sick pay. "Not a negotiable offer," the union counters.

But the chancellor's austerity program, intended to budget-cut a way into economic growth and fuller employment, is implicitly premised upon two years of wage freezes for public-sector employees. Interior Minister Manfred Kanther has a responsibility to drive a hard bargain, analysts say, not only because the 3.2 million public workers are large part of the federal and local budgets, but also to set a good example for private-sector unions.

'Plot against Germany's unemployed'

OTV may well be satisfied in the end with a face-saving increase of 1.5 percent or so, which, given low inflation, would hold workers' purchasing power just about steady. But for now both sides are hanging tough.

Meanwhile, private-sector unions are mobilizing against the austerity program, threatening a "hot summer" of protests. Klaus Zwickel, head of the metalworkers' union IG Metall, squelched talk of a general strike: His union would not "strike against a democratic parliament and a freely elected parliament." But this did not prevent him from characterizing the austerity program as a "plot against Germany's unemployed."

"A general strike ... is a political strike," which is illegal in Germany, said Dieter Schulte, head of the trade union federation DGB. Under German law, strikes are legal when collective bargaining has been unsuccessful, and then only when 75 percent of the affected workers vote to strike. "We have enough other weapons with which to defend ourselves" against the austerity program, "and we will make full use of them," added Mr. Schulte. Unions are planning special rallies June 15 and 17.

German states rebel

Kohl's budget program has also run afoul of the state governments, whose leaders charge that the chancellor is trying to balance the budget on their backs. Last weekend, the state presidents met at Krickenbeck Castle on the Rhine to formulate as response to the proposal, and all 16 state leaders voted to reject the program. Since many elements of the program must be approved by the upper house of the German Parliament, which these state governments control, this means trouble for Kohl.

And it gets worse: The annual spring estimate of government tax receipts, issued by an elaborately multipartisan commission, indicated Wednesday that $14.3 billion less than was previously estimated can be counted on to flow into federal, state, and local coffers this year. It's not clear how the budget gap will be closed.

Kohl himself, meanwhile, has complained about the "provincialism" of German politics and issued a reminder that the economic changes he is seeking are similar to those that Sweden, the Netherlands, and Spain have had to make. At a special meeting of party leaders in Dessau, he reaffirmed his intention to go ahead with his program: "It is time to fish or cut bait."

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