L-I: Background on strike actions in Germany

Johannes Schneider Johannes.Schneider at SPAMGMX.NET
Mon Jun 5 00:59:18 MDT 2000

>From the FAZ website:

Unions Staying Away From Picket Lines

By Nico Fickinger

FRANKFURT. It was just after 4.30 P.M. on a Sunday when the small helicopter
circled low over Frankfurt's Mainzer Landstrasse and then touched down on
the forecourt of a well-known newspaper printer.

Although surprised, the picketers assumed the entire exercise was a
diversionary tactic. But some of them dropped to the ground and looked
beneath the locked entrance gate to get a better idea of what was happening
on the other side. Five minutes later, they found out that this was no
diversionary tactic. As the helicopter rose into the sky, they saw that the
rear half of the cabin was stuffed with bundles of newspapers. Angered, the
strikers started to hurl rolls of toilet paper into the air. Police
intervened, and a hail of bottles and stones soon followed. But the
spectacular operation had paid off: The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was
on its way to its readers.

June 24, 1984, is a historic day for this newspaper, and the wave of labor
disputes that occurred during this year rewrote German industrial relations.
About 45,000 printers went on strike for three months, while 58,000
metalworkers did not show up for work for six weeks. Their common objective
in this, the hardest-fought labor dispute in post-war German history, was
the 35-hour working week. The employers were prepared to take equally
drastic action in response, locking out over half a million workers in the
metal and electrical industries alone. Although the employers were
ultimately unable to prevent the introduction of the 35-hour week, they did
at least delay it until 1990. In 1984, they had only to accept a reduction
of the workweek to 38.5 hours, reduced further to 37 hours in 1987.

The industrial actions in 1984 meant the loss of almost 6 million working
days, a scale of disruption not witnessed for generations. In the first 18
years of the 20th century, the German Reich suffered an average of 6.5
million lost working days a year caused by strikes and lockouts.

According to a report from the Cologne Institute for Business Research, the
Weimar Republic (during its short-lived history between 1919 and 1933) lost
an even higher 14 million working days a year. The primary factor in this
case was attempts by the unions to compensate for spiraling inflation with
higher and higher wage demands.

While collective bargaining and industrial action were abolished in the
Third Reich, the early years of West Germany saw the idea of
management/union partnership take hold. Between 1949 and 1992 an annual
average of just 750,000 working days were lost because of strikes and
lockouts, and the figure since then has sunk further to 200,000 working days
a year.

The latest round of wage negotiations illustrates this new mutual
benevolence. Even the battle-hardened metalworkers and electrical workers
reached agreement in the so-called peace period that prohibits strikes,
while collective agreements in the chemical industry were renewed way ahead
of schedule.

The only serious action taken was by 100,000 union members in the public
service sector. Their weeklong warning strike was intended to put some
pressure behind their demands for pay increases and an alignment of eastern
German incomes to levels in the west of the country. Thanks to a
10,000-strong warning strike organized by Germany's biggest media employees'
union, IG Medien, this month, publishers were, if at all, only able to issue
slimmed-down versions of their newspapers for two days. But the scale of
disruption experienced by Germany as recently as the early 1970s is now a
distant memory.

So what is the reason for this congenial atmosphere, which has given Germany
some of the most peaceful labor relations in the world? Have the unions
simply given up hope of successful mass industrial action? Are there perhaps
no more sources of dispute that would justify prolonged strikes? Or have
employers become so weak that they pander to every demand of the unions for
fear of renewed action?

It's a bit of everything. Coordinated strike action, for one thing, has been
made more difficult since the so-called strike paragraph in German labor law
was amended in 1986. Employees indirectly affected by a strike can no longer
look to the state for financial assistance. This forces the unions to give
greater consideration to the consequences of industrial action. The fewer
employers affected on the periphery of the actual dispute, the less strike
money they will need to pay and the longer they will be able to maintain the

This was a crucial factor in the decision by Germany's main metalworkers'
union, IG Metall, to employ a pinprick strategy during the strike in Bavaria
in 1995. Industrial action was concentrated on a small number of end
producers to avoid peripheral effects and reduce the burden on the strike

Meanwhile, unions are finding it increasingly difficult to mobilize their
members. This is, on the one hand, because of waning solidarity among
employee organizations, as evident in the rapidly sinking membership
numbers. While the German Trade Union Federation, the DGB, had 11.8 million
members at the end of 1991, by the end of last year the figure had fallen by
almost a third to around 8 million. On the other hand, unions lack the
issues to win over members. The attempt to reduce the mandatory period of
continued sick pay in 1996, for example, was certainly met with opposition
by employees.

Wage negotiators at the IG Metall's headquarters in Frankfurt have even been
heard to admit that it would at present be impossible to win popular support
for a further reduction of the working week. This would appear to explain
why the unions again postponed attempts to secure a 32-hour week at the
latest round of negotiations and were all too willing to settle for better
senior employee part-time conditions instead. The so-called New Economy with
its revised demands -- success-oriented wage structures and far more
flexible working hours -- leaves traditional union demands looking even more

The third and probably most important reason is the tendency of employers to
avoid strikes like the plague. "A lot of companies would now barely be able
to survive industrial disputes," said the specialists from the Cologne
institute. "In light of the worldwide interpenetration of markets in these
times of globalization, strikes and lockouts would lead to losses in orders
that could no longer be made good," they added. Employers' associations only
compensate their members for material strike damage incurred by losses of
output, for example. Companies are hit far worse by the loss of new orders
or of a traditional customer. This is where they are ultimately vulnerable.

A spokesman for car parts maker Bosch confirmed this is an Achilles heel.
Most producers of highly complex electronic components, he said, have
concentrated on a single supplier. "If (the supplier) drops out, production
comes to a standstill." Even standard parts, currently still acquired from
two or three suppliers, will soon also be ordered from a single company.
With the introduction of the just-in-time concept, most parts are taken
straight from suppliers to the assembly line. Only a minimal number of
companies still have substantial stockpiles as an insurance for unexpected
disruptions. Generally, companies would be able to cope with no more than
short-term delays of up to one working day.

Many companies prefer to pay higher wages to remain internationally
competitive -- the higher labor costs are later recouped through
rationalization measures, layoffs or a relocation of production to other
countries. Responding to a strike with a lockout, however, would likely harm
them most. If a company lost the worker dispute, it would be even more
costly. No union, after all, would win a strike and then sign an settlement
it would have agreed to earlier at the negotiating table. The approach would
surely be rather one of "Now it's our turn."

The president of the Gesamtmetall employers' association, Werner Stumpfe,
sums up the position of employers with a disquieting directness: "Our
companies are unable to fight labor disputes." But he also reckons unions
would have little reason to celebrate. The days are gone when they could
make excessive demands and put the pressure on employers to find a
May 17

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