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Germans debate workers' rights. Conservatives and trade union advocates argue over bill designed to eliminate state pay to strikers

To conservatives, their new, tougher strike bill restores the ``neutrality'' of the state. To trade unions, it attacks workers' fundamental right to strike and adds one more blow to this decade's series of hard knocks.

The draft that had its first reading Wednesday is sure to be passed by the center-right majority of the Bundestag, the lower chamber of Parliament. It would bar unemployment payments by the Federal Labor Office to workers laid off indirectly by strikes but in a position to benefit from settlement of these strikes.

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The new legislation was introduced in reaction to the tactics used two years ago by the 2.5 million-strong IG Metall, an engineering and metal workers' trade union. IGM is the largest union in the country and is usually the bellwether in industrial negotiations.

In a two-month strike in 1984 over shorter working hours by about 60,000 IGM members in the state of Hesse, the union targeted a few key automobile component companies -- and thereby brought the entire car industry to a standstill.

The companies locked out some 150,000 employees, and another 100,000 were idled by lack of parts.

IGM had to pay benefits out of its strike fund to only 60,000; the state had to pay unemployment benefits of more than 200 million marks ($83 million) to the rest of the 300,000 jobless.

Under the new bill, no repetition of this tactic would be possible. Labor Minister Norbert Bl"um told the Bundestag that this would be fair, since it would bar the state from taking sides by financing strikes.

Contesting this, Social Democrat parliamentary leader Hans-Jochen Vogel said it would tip the scales against the unions and put West Germany's vaunted social peace at risk.

The Bundestag debate coincided with the first stage of this year's wage negotiations, which are again focusing on wages rather than hours. IGM is demanding from 6 percent to 7.5 percent increases, while management is offering 4 percent.

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In public-sector wage negotiations yesterday, the government stayed with its offer of a 3 percent increase and the largest union stuck with its 6 percent demand.

In a show of solidarity, several hundred thousand workers demonstrated for wage hikes and against the new legislation Tuesday, and an unknown number put down their tools to follow the Bundestag debate on radio or TV Wednesday. In protest, public-sector workers also halted city transportation for several hours in various cities.

``Political'' strikes are illegal in West Germany, but unions are making little effort to hide the fact that their scattered industrial action is aimed at the new legislation as well as at wage talks.

The unions seem to be fighting a losing battle. In a period of protracted unemployment -- the unadjusted figure reached a high 10.4 percent in January, affecting 2.59 million people -- workers are disinclined toward militancy, except in prosperous unions like IGM. And overall union membership is declining. Only one-third of the work force is unionized, and the umbrella German Trade Union Federation has dropped 200,000 in the past two years to stand at 7.6 million members today.

Besides toughened strike conditions and a falling membership, the unions have sustained a major blow to their morale in recent years in the scandal and 5 billion marks ($2 billion) indebtedness of one of their sponsored firms, Neue Heimat.

This has been a particular embarrassment, since Neue Heimat was founded after the war with the idealistic aim of providing low-cost housing for workers. In order to raise cash it is now being forced to sell off apartments in a sluggish market. Many flats remain empty -- and many of the families currently living in Neue Heimat apartments can't afford to buy them.

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