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German Workers Threaten Strike

Government fears unrest will disrupt recovery and social stability

LARGE-SCALE worker unrest looms unless labor and management in Germany's metalworking and electrical sector can reach a wage compromise during contract talks today.

Heading into the talks, the positions of IG Metall, the metalworkers' union, and Gesamtmetall, the employers' organization, appeared far apart. And both sides are taking a hard-line approach to negotiations.

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`Crisis situation'

IG Metal leaders have called for a pay increase of up to 6 percent but hint that they will settle for less - something around 3 percent - if employers also agree to measures aimed at maintaining current job levels. Management representatives are pushing for a wage freeze, along with a reduction in vacation benefits and a longer work week. The employers insist German industry is faced with ``a crisis situation'' requiring massive cost cuts to maintain international competitiveness.

The last round of talks, held Monday, collapsed after a few hours. Both sides have portrayed today's negotiations as the last chance to avoid a strike. If a compromise is not reached by next Monday, IG Metall leaders say they will hold a strike vote among the union's 3.6 million members.

``He who cannot hear will have to be made to feel,'' IG Metall chief Klaus Zwickel, quoting a German proverb, told a Wednesday rally of 20,000 union supporters.

Since the beginning of February, IG Metall has pressured management with strike warnings. IG Metall stoppages Wednesday involved about 120,000 workers, a union representative said.

The contract talks are coming at a sensitive time for the German economy, which is struggling to climb out of its worst recession since the end of World War II.

Unemployment soars

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Earlier this week, the German Federal Labor Office announced that the number of unemployed in January surpassed 4 million, compared with 3.7 million in December. The official rate in formerly Communist eastern Germany stood at 17 percent, and 8.8 percent in western Germany, the labor office said.

``We must be aware that lasting, high unemployment threatens not only our economic order, but also the foundations of our society,'' Economic Minister Guenter Rexrodt said, speaking at a conference about the unemployment figures. ``We must devote all our efforts to averting this threat.'' A large-scale strike could deal a blow to government efforts to maintain the recovery.

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