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Germany Strives to Find New Economic Consensus

AFTER months of handwringing as Germany's unemployment hit postwar highs, leaders of government, labor, and industry finally have a plan: By 2000, they pledge to cut joblessness in half by creating 2 million new jobs.

But this pledge is to be seen more as a ''political message,'' as one observer puts it, than a practical program for reducing joblessness.

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The eight-page manifesto signed earlier this week is described by the parties as the basis for further negotiations and is nebulous on some critical details.

But one thing it is explicit about is support for the traditional system of industry-wide wage contracts that is widely seen as a cause of unemployment, which is now nearly 10 percent in Germany. Friedrich Bohl, aide to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, nonetheless called the accord ''a good signal for all Germans.''

The basic problem in Germany is that high labor costs, especially nonwage costs, have driven up the cost of job creation. The wage contracts protect the interests of those already employed but do not particularly help those out of work. Restrictions on hours that can be worked do not help either.

The challenges were highlighted last November when Klaus Zwickel, head of IG Metall, the metalworkers' union, proposed an ''alliance for jobs'' - a deal whereby the union would forgo wage hikes for a year if the employers' group would commit to creating 110,000 new jobs a year for three years. He was hailed by all parties for acknowledging a link between labor costs and employment.

Economists, however, say that Mr. Zwickel would be doing well by his membership just to keep more jobs from being lost. Some say real-wage cuts, not just wage restraint, are needed.

The Zwickel proposal came as Mr. Kohl, whose conservative Christian Democratic Union is generally seen as allied to business, was becoming peeved with the industry's growing tendency to bad-mouth what is known here as ''Standort Deutschland'' - Germany as an industrial location, a place to do business.

In an era of globalization, and with a strong deutsche mark making foreign investment particularly tempting to business, the postwar social consensus appears frayed at the edges. German employers no longer feel as obligated to look out for their German workers.

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Still, that the three-way discussions took place at all is a sign of the German instinct for social consensus-building. Germans are not interested in experiencing the upheavals that France, with its more confrontational trade unions, has been through in recent months. The discussions are to continue Feb. 12.

Nor is Germany ready to follow the American path. The United States has overall better rates of job creation but also falling real wages, more reliance on fixed-term rather than permanent employment, and a general willingness to let individuals fend for themselves.

The German economy still labors under the strain of absorbing the former East Germany, too. Increased social-insurance costs that employers must bear are restricting job growth.

With big companies often laying off workers, Kohl has been calling for more entrepreneurship and a ''new culture of self-reliance.''

Some specific points to come out of the recent three-way talks involving the chancellor:

r Union promises of restraint in wage demands.

r Industry promises to convert overtime work to new jobs.

r Government promises to cut social-insurance costs slightly, reform corporate tax laws, and support venture capital and research.

A key issue not addressed: Companies laying people off have used a legal provision for putting senior workers on early retirement. The government has complained that this option has been overused to the point of straining the pension system. ''Big industry is using the social system to dump its older employees,'' Labor Minister Norbert Blum said. ''I refuse to be the gravedigger of our pension insurance.''

This high unemployment and general economic sluggishness is causing concern for Germany's neighbors in the European Union. They wonder if anyone but Luxembourg will qualify for the common European currency planned for introduction in 1999. German Finance Minister Theo Waigel, for all his tough talk of fiscal responsibility within the EU, has just had to acknowledge that the German budget deficit for 1995 was above the 3 percent limit of the EU monetary ''convergence criteria.''

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