Red alert in Germany: garbage is piling up in the cities, keeping government offices, schools, kindergartens and universities shut for days at a time. Even hospitals are on strike. This has been the case since early February - and there's no end in sight for the longest public-sector strike in postwar German history.
The people of Baden-Württemberg are known for their thriftiness. Yet because of a strike by public sector workers, municipal authorities in the state capital Stuttgart are spending like sailors on leave. They lose € 12,000 ($14,444) in daily revenue on parking tickets that their meter maids don't issue. They are out the E428,000 ($515,332) in fees from parents who can't drop their children off at the city's closed kindergartens. Private sanitation companies have charged E1.1 million ($1.3 million) for their services so far. "We still have a financial cushion," said a Stuttgart administration spokesman last week. We can hold out for months, responded the Ver.di service sector union organizing the walkout.
The public sector is on strike, and not just in Stuttgart. According to Ver.di, 24,000 municipal and state workers have walked off the job so far. That is out of a total public-sector workforce of 4.7 million people.
The conflict began after a decision made by employers' associations, who,in Germany's federal system, represent the country's town and state governments. They wanted to increase working hours for local government employees from the current 38.5 to 40 hours per week. The reasoning was that, given their empty coffers, states and municipalities are unable to hire new people. Yet the work that needs to be done can't be managed by current employees in current work hours. So, people would have to work more.
Ver.di has manned the barricades to defend the 38.5-hour work week. Politicians and academics close to the labor movement are even calling on all unions within the League of German Trade Unions, the DGB, to fight for the introduction of the 35-hour week, thereby forcing public-sector employers to hire more people and substantially reduce unemployment.
The public is divided in its stance toward the two camps. Ver.di gets support from the post-Communist Left Party - which, however, is not in government in any of the areas experiencing the strike. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), as well as the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), reject the union demands in unison. Meanwhile, the traditional workers' party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is split on the issue. Its leftist wing, always close to the unions, supports ver.di more or less openly. Where the Social Democrats are in government at the municipal or state level, however, they reject the strikers' demands.
Ver.di has not made many friends among the residents of affected towns. Many welcome the work of mediators, who have been brought in to help the two sides find common ground. Everyone involved, however, knows that ultimately, the working week will be extended.
One of ver.di's main concerns is to distribute the increase through several worker cohorts. The mediators' basic recommendation, therefore, has been to keep less well-paid workers close to present working hours, because longer hours would effectively mean a wage cut. Better-trained and educated employees, especially those with university degrees, on the other hand, could justifiably be expected to work longer.
This formula has succeeded in resolving the labor conflicts in Hamburg and Lower Saxony. The two sides agreed on working hours of just under 39 hours on average. In Baden-Württemberg, however, both ver.di and the employers reject the mediators' proposals. Employers are using private companies as strike breakers. Unions have responded by widening the walkouts and protests. Negotiations for state employees have also been deadlocked for weeks.
In the end, the strike could end the way it did for New York's transportation workers last year: in a more or less substantial loss of union power. That is because no matter how much public sympathy the strikers enjoy, people's patience will sooner or later reach its limit. They are the ones who watch the mountains of stinking refuse in front of their houses grow higher; they are the ones who sacrifice their time because there is no one to take care of their children. Their papers lie unprocessed in government offices and their medical procedures have to be postponed. Free parking anywhere is poor compensation for all that.
Lengthening weekly working hours is not the right thing to do; they should instead be reduced, according to the Munich-based strategic consulting company Peter Milde and partners (PMP) who conducted a four-year survey of civil servants and other employees of the state, federal states and communities. Only 53 percent of full-time employees operate at full capacity; among part-time employees only 47.5 percent do. It would be possible to save 30 percent in personnel costs; that would involve optimizing procedures and replacing full-time employees with part-time employees who were paid less, Peter Milde says. "This would be fair because it would save jobs."