Go-ahead for major German strike
FRANKFURT, Germany -- Leaders of Germany's biggest union have approved their first major strike in seven years, starting in a region that is home to vehicle giant DaimlerChrysler.
The decision by the huge IG Metall union's executive followed strike ballots in two German regions that produced overwhelming votes in favour of a walkout to press for higher pay.
Economists fear the union's move could damage Europe's biggest economy just as it starts to emerge from recession.
Any long dispute or hefty pay award could also rock Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's bid to win a second term in office in elections to be held on September 22.
Some 56,000 workers in Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to DaimlerChrysler's Stuttgart headquarters and its main Mercedes-Benz car plant in the nearby town of Sindelfingen, will down tools in the strike starting on Monday, the union said.
Not all of them will strike at the same time. The union is opting for a new system of rolling "flexistrikes," targeting various firms with one-day stoppages.
Around 90 percent of union members ballotted in Baden-Wuerttemberg and over 85 percent of workers in Berlin/Brandenburg voted to authorise strike action, although no definite stoppage has yet been planned for the northern region.
IG Metall members in 1,007 firms have been taking part in the ballot in the two regions which began last week.
"I hope employers will look closely at this result and see that workers are willing to strike for their wage demands," Berthold Huber, IG Metall's district head in Baden-Wuerttemberg told reporters. "We hope this will lead to an acceptable wage agreement in the next days and weeks."
The union initially demanded a pay rise of 6.5 percent before lowering that claim to around four percent in talks that collapsed 11 days ago.
Employers, who had originally proposed a two percent pay rise, revised their offer to a 3.3 percent rise. But the two sides remained too far apart to reach a deal.
Business leaders criticised the union's tough stance, saying strikes could spill over into other countries.
"In such a fragile economic situation, exuberant wage demands and now strikes are not the right answer and the last thing we need," said an official from UNICE, a business group which speaks for over 16 million firms that operate in Europe.
Hans Werner Busch, head of Gesamtmetall, the engineering employers group, called the result "not surprising, but very disappointing nonetheless."
IG Metall Chairman Klaus Zwickel has kept companies guessing about the actual impact of the strikes, which are aimed at hitting big manufacturers while limiting the impact at suppliers and other firms not directly affected.
The tactic, involving one-day stoppages at different firms, is a reaction to legislation introduced in the 1980s by the then conservative government which states that workers laid off by strikes at other firms, such as parts suppliers, cannot receive state compensation for lost income.
IG Metall said it would target 59 machine engineering companies and 29 vehicle makers in Baden-Wuerttemberg but did not name them.
DaimlerChrysler, which employs 190,000 people in Germany and has two big plants near Berlin as well as its Stuttgart bases, declined to comment on the outcome of the ballots.
Earlier this month, the company said union demands were unrealistic and risked damaging recovery and job prospects.
Siemens, whose power generation unit employs 16,000 people in Berlin, also declined to comment but Chief Executive Heinrich von Pierer said last week the group did not expect a major impact from strike action.
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