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German metal workers win shorter workweek -- Victory has wide-ranging implications

By Jim Genova, People's Weekly World, 8 April 1995

One of the most significant labor victories thus far in 1995 is that of IG Metall, the German engineering and metal workers union, which beat off an attempt by the employers' association, Gesamtmetall, to delay implementation of a 35-hour workweek with no reduction in pay.

After weeks of warning strikes and demonstrations which involved tens of thousands of workers, IG Metall was forced to call the first strike in the industry in 11 years, and the first strike to hit Bavaria's engineering industry since 1954, when management continued to press for postponement of a 1990 agreement which would reduce the workweek one hour -- to 35 -- effective October 1.

The union held fast to its demand for implementation of the agreement despite management claims that it would cause a 2.8 percent increase in labor costs and that it would exert inflationary pressures on Germany's recession-wracked economy. Further, the union demanded a 6 percent pay increase and eventually won a 3.8 increase as part of the settlement.

IG Metall patterned its demand after an agreement reached with the auto manufacturer Volkswagen in which the union agreed to a four-day workweek, with corresponding pay cuts, in order to preserve 30,000 jobs that were slated for elimination. One year later, almost all of the 30,000 are still employed at VW.

This time, IG Metall took the struggle a step further, demanding no cut in pay -- and even a pay increase over the annual inflation rate of 2.3 percent. This marked a significant victory for labor in Germany and served as an inspiration for the beleaguered European labor movement.

Unions in France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom have followed suit with similar demands for shorter workweeks to preserve jobs and to generate further employment. IG Metall estimates that their two-year deal with Gesamtmetall will lead to an increase in consumer spending, thus fueling demand for durable goods and leading to a decline in unemployment as more workers are hired to meet that demand.

Coming as it does in a period of economic crisis, the IG Metall victory shows the possibilities of winning offensive struggles around wage increases, shorter workweeks and improved conditions even in a period of perceived economic decline. It exploded the myth that wages and hours can only be won in times of economic prosperity and that workers "must share the pain" when capitalism descends into its ever more frequent cyclical crises.

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