German union wins over hours, but at what price?

Submitted by Matthew on 28 February, 2018 - 9:20 Author: Stefan Dietl

Last month, the German metalworking and electronics industries waged their most intensive struggle for years. More than 1.5 million workers downed tools in three 24-hour stoppages.

The 24-hour strikes allowed them to make a strong show of economic force. The strikes meant between 770 and 980 million Euros’ worth of lost production. Little wonder, then, that the Gesamtmetall employers’ association wanted to prevent open-ended strikes.

Unions and employers have agreed to a wage increase of 4.3% over two years from April 2018, and a one-off payment of 100 Euros. From 2019, employees should receive a bonus each July to the value of 27.54% of a monthly salary, and also a fixed sum, initially set at 400 Euros. Apprentices will also receive a wage increase of 4.3%. But their one-off payment will only be 70 Euros and in 2019 they will receive 200 Euros. Most economists assume an average wage increase of 3% per year, with lower-wage groups performing markedly better.

But the central issue in the wage dispute was not just about higher pay.

For the first time since the historic strike for the 35-hour week in East Germany fifteen years ago, the biggest single union in the world was fighting for a reduction of working hours.

Instead of a collective and permanent reduction, the union IG Metall took a more individualised approach to working time and demanded that workers be provided the option of reducing their working hours from 35 to 28 hours a week over a period of up to two years. Taking that tack won the union a partial victory.

From 2019, full-time workers who have worked in their plant for at least two years, will be able to reduce their working hours to 28 hours a week for between six months and two years, before returning to a 35-hour week. If more than 10% of workers are on reduced hours at a given time, the employer may not grant any additional requests. However, IG Metall didn’t win their demand that pay lost through reductions in working hours should be compensated through an additional raise.

Workers who have children under eight years old or who care for dependants — that is, those workers for whom the reduction in working time is especially important — have the option of giving up the additional payment of 27.54% of a month’s salary, in return for eight additional days of leave, of which the employer will pay them for two. This also applies to shift workers, provided that they have been employed at the works for a long period of time. More free time or more money — this is the choice that the wage settlement puts before the workers.

In return for this option, IG Metall agreed to a measure that would further undermine the 35-hour week.

Whereas until now up to 18% of all work contracts could stipulate a 40-hour week, from now on, joint-management works councils will be able to raise that proportion to 22%. If the employer can prove that they are suffering from Germany’s infamous labour shortage, a works-level agreement can be signed to permit that figure to go as high as 30%; if at least half the employees earn more than 5,500 Euros a month, it can be 50%.

Not everyone shares the enthusiasm of IG Metall leader Jörg Hofmann, for whom the agreement represents “a milestone on the way to a modern, self-governing world of work”. Critics have not only pointed out that the reduction in working hours for some will be repaid by an extension of working hours for others; but also attacked the increased individualisation of the rules set out in collective agreements. More than a few people fear that in the future, workers will be easier to play off against one another, and warn that unions’ collective power might be weakened.

Union reps [Vertrauensleute] at the Bremen Mercedes-Benz works criticised the IG Metall strategy in sharp terms before the agreement was concluded: “No more united demands, everyone can go on strike for their individual desires (if any). A strike becomes almost impossible, so long collective wage agreements.” This, they said, would be “a further step towards the self-destruction of our union”.

However, in a survey on working hours conducted before the dispute, in which 680,000 workers in the metalworking and electronics industries took part, the great majority said that they were generally happy with their working hours.

82% of those questioned said that they would, however, like the opportunity to temporarily reduce their hours, for example to raise children, look after relatives, or undergo further training; and also to adapt their working hours to the circumstances of their life, instead of following rigid models.

Through this wage settlement, IG-Metall is trying to meet their members need for flexible models of working hours, without giving up collective bargaining rights over working time and wages.

Whether that works or not remains to be seen.

• Translated from here

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