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100,000 German Auto Workers Walk Out

We careful what you ask for, says a bit of folk wisdom, you may get it. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked for a change in the law governing workers' sick-leave pay, to save employers money.

He got the change he sought. The new law went into effect on Tuesday.

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But as a result, Germany has erupted in some of the most serious labor strife it has seen in years. More than 100,000 auto workers put down their tools in Mercedes-Benz and Opel plants in Stuttgart and Desseldorf. A major nationwide protest by IG Metall is planned for Oct. 24.

These developments are another sign of fundamental changes coming to Germany, a society that has long prided itself for its deeply ingrained tradition of consensus and cooperation among labor, management, and government.

The statutory change the chancellor sought in parliament was to cut sick-leave pay from 100 percent to 80 percent. The present law is too expensive for employers, he had argued. The fringe costs of employment make it harder for companies to take on new workers, and unemployment is at record highs.

It was a largely symbolic issue, since most workers' sick-leave pay - 80 percent of the work force - is governed not by statute but by collective bargaining. Changing the sick-leave statute should have been a way to signal to the business community that the government heard their concerns, without really affecting that many workers.

Symbolism cuts both ways, however. The 100 percent sick-pay standard was rooted in a bitterly fought strike that lasted for 16 weeks in 1956-57. That strike, the 40th anniversary of which will be Oct. 24 (hence the date for the planned rally), is regarded as the most serious labor unrest of post-World War II Germany. Thus the effort to change the law resulted in a highly emotional response from the unions, yielding a series of weekend and holiday rallies and protests.

But what has inspired this week's work stoppages in the auto plants have been the announcements, first by Daimler-Benz, then by Opel and Ford, that they will henceforth pay only 80 percent wages in case of illness.

The employers counter that the new law makes contracts reached under the old law invalid, and that these must be therefore renegotiated. New negotiations would also provide a way to trim Christmas and vacation bonuses, two other fringe costs employers are beginning to challenge. Daimler-Benz, in particular, appears willing to settle this issue in court if need be.

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Not all automakers are following suit - Volkswagen and Audi announced that they will stick with 100 percent sick-leave pay. But that any of the employers are acting this way is remarkable in consensus-minded Germany.

Implicit in the discussion of the sick-leave issue is an assumption that there is considerable abuse of the system by workers feigning illness. In some sectors, notably public service, the average individual sick leave taken amounts to several weeks a year. This leads some observers to consider the problem a management issue: The workers couldn't be taking such advantage of the system if someone weren't letting them.

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