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Germany’s largest union escalates fight for 28-hour work week

The largest union in Germany is bracing for a combative start to the new year as it presses demands for a 28-hour working week, warning employers to expect mass strikes in the battle for a better work-life balance.

Germany's largest union escalates fight for 28-hour work week
IG Metall workers demonstrating with signs reading 'self determined work time.' Photo: DPA

The mighty IG Metall union, which represents some 3.9 million workers in the metal and electrical industries, says it is ready to flex its muscles after initial negotiations with employers made little headway.

An agreed no-strike period ends on December 31st, and IG Metall chief Joerg Hofmann has told employers to expect brief “warning strikes” from January 8th, and he said more widespread action could follow.

“If by the end of January the employers have not changed their stance, we will consider resorting to 24-hour strikes or calling a vote for a general strike,” Hofmann told DPA news agency this week.

Seeing its bargaining power strengthened at a time of bulging order books and record-low employment in Europe's top economy, the union is pushing for a six-percent wage increase.

The Gesamtmetall employers' federation has so far offered two percent, setting the stage for both sides to meet somewhere in the middle.

Far more controversial is IG Metall's call for employees to be allowed to switch to a 28-hour week for a two-year period — with limited impact on wages.

That demand has been met with fierce resistance from company bosses, and stirred wider debate about quality of life and the future of work in booming Germany.

In certain circumstances, IG Metall says reduced working hours must not go hand-in-hand with a drastic salary cut — for instance when staff are caring for young children or ailing relatives.

In those cases, the union wants employers to top up workers' salaries to help make up for the shortfall that comes with clocking up fewer hours.

It also wants employees to be guaranteed a return to a 35-hour week after two years.

Radical rethink

“I think IG Metall's proposal is very modern,” professor Gustav Horn of the Hans-Boeckler Foundation think tank told the Nordwest Zeitung daily.

He said it would inevitably lead to higher costs that would hurt the bottom line, but could also be a way for firms to hold onto their best workers.

“In future, well-qualified employees will select those companies that offer flexible hours that suit their lives at that time,” he predicted.

But Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank, said a shorter week would mainly hurt small and medium-sized companies who could struggle to meet production targets.

“If it would be replicated throughout the economy, it could do serious damage,” he said, in a nod to IG Metall's track record of paving the way for major changes to the work environment.

IG Metall, which represents the powerful car and machine manufacturing sectors so crucial to Germany's economic success, led the campaign for a 35-hour week in the 1990s.

But this time, it is pushing for a radical rethink on part-time work.

“The time has come for workers to demand more self-determination to adapt working hours to their personal situation,” Hofmann told reporters in October.

He said the trend for more flexible working hours in recent years had mainly benefitted bosses who got staff to work longer days.

'Costly, unfair' 

The Gesamtmetall employers' federation has slammed IG Metall's demand for less work at roughly the same pay as “too costly” and “unfair”.

It says employees already have the option of working part-time if they wish, with a pay packet to match.

“Our rule is: if you work more, you earn more. If you work less, you earn less,” Gesamtmetall chief Rainer Dulger said in a recent interview with regional media.

He added that the proposed measure could lead to a shortage of skilled workers in sectors crucial to the country's economy.

IG Metall has hit back at the criticism, saying firms were losing out on skilled workers by not meeting their needs, particularly among the female workforce.

The controversy is likely to spill over into politics in coming weeks, as Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives head into negotiations with the Social Democrats on forming another coalition government.

Former labour minister Andrea Nahles, who will be a main negotiator for the Social Democrats in the upcoming talks, has already said it was “a good thing” that IG Metall was putting working time at the heart of its demands.

WORKING IN GERMANY

German steelworkers agree 6.5 percent pay hike after strike

Tens of thousands of steel workers in western Germany will get a 6.5-percent pay hike this year - the biggest jump in three decades - in a settlement that could set the tone for industry as inflation soars.

German steelworkers agree 6.5 percent pay hike after strike

The agreed increase would come into effect “from August 1st”, the IG Metall union in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia said in a statement Wednesday.

The 68,000 steelworkers in the industrial region would also receive a one-off payment of 500 euros for the months of June and July, the union said.

The outcome of the negotiations was “the biggest increase in wages in the steel industry in percentage terms in 30 years,” said IG Metall boss, Joerg Hofmann.

Germany’s largest union, IG Metall launched a strike action at steelworks in the west in May after management failed to meet its demands for an 8.2 percent pay increase.

On Thursday at the peak of the movement, around 16,000 workers across 50 firms downed tools, the union said.

READ ALSO: Should foreign workers join a German union?

“Rising inflation” and the “good economic situation” of the steel industry were the basis for IG Metall’s demands.

Consumer prices rose at a 7.9-percent rate in Germany in May, a record for the country since reunification in 1990 driven by the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

The smaller number of steelworkers in the east of Germany, who are also seeking an 8.2 percent pay boost, have yet to reach their own agreement.

Negotiations are currently taking place in a number of sectors. In the textile industry, 12,000 workers in the east of Germany sealed a 5.6 percent pay increase at the beginning of May.

Meanwhile, negotiations covering the auto industry, and mechanical and electrical engineering will begin in November.

Despite the agreed rise the onus was still on government to relieve the pressure on workers form rising prices “in the coming months”, IG Metall boss Hofmann said.

Significant wage demands have prompted concerns of a wage-price spiral, where rising pay sustains higher inflation.

The European Central Bank last week said it would raise its interest rates for the first time in over a decade this July as it seeks to stamp out price rises.

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