Germany’s largest labor union, IG Metall, is probably the most powerful union in an industrial country and it likes to think of itself as a pacesetter for worker benefits. The union, which represents 3.9 million workers in core industries ranging from automotive to engineering, is now demanding its members be entitled to work as little as 28 hours a week for up to two years if they so choose.
Although IG Metall pioneered the 40-hour work week in Germany in the 1960s and the 35-hour work week in the 1990s, the union is not looking to reduce the full-time work week to 28 hours but to give workers the flexibility to strike a better work-life balance if necessary, for instance, to take care of young children or aging parents.
The demand is part of the negotiating package the union’s board laid out ahead of the next round of contract negotiations on a sector-wide basis. The union also is seeking a 6-percent increase in wages, after seeking 5 percent last year and ending up with a two-step increase of nearly that.
The union feels it has considerable leverage because order books in German industry are bulging and the country is effectively at full employment. However, the demand for a shorter work week met with immediate resistance from employers, who worry that it will exacerbate the existing shortage of skilled labor. This will make it difficult for German companies to remain competitive, especially against an increasingly sophisticated China.
“Health and compatibility between family and job should not depend on your wallet. ”
“What IG Metall is demanding doesn’t go,” said Arndt Kirchoff, head of the employer association for these sectors in North Rhine-Westphalia. “It is insupportable for Germany as a site for metalworking and engineering industries.”
Mr. Kirchoff said the union demand threatens the very practice of concluding contracts for entire industrial sectors rather than just individual companies. “We are very much in favor of flexible work hours,” he said, speaking for employers. “But first the orders we have need to be filled. That must be ensured, otherwise customers will buy somewhere else.”
According to the IG Metall proposals, workers should get a shorter work week for up to two years without having to give a reason, with a lower compensation. Those who take the shorter hours to care for a child younger than 14 years or for ailing parents, or for health reasons, will be entitled to a subsidy to offset in part the reduced compensation. They will have the right to return to full-time work after two years.
“Health and compatibility between family and job should not depend on your wallet,” said IG Metall chief Jörg Hofmann. Current contracts allow companies to have up to 18 percent of their employees work longer than 35 hours a week. The IG Metall proposal doesn’t put any limit on what percentage of the workforce can elect the shorter week. “Flexible work hours in factories should not be a one-sided burden on the employees,” Mr. Hofmann said, “it should also be of use to them.”
The union is making work time flexibility part of contract negotiations because it can no longer count on backing from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on government labor policy. Following last month’s election, the SPD said it would not renew the grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, forcing her to seek a new coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens.
The business-friendly FDP in particular is not likely to back legislation favoring labor. With its push to accelerate digitization of the economy, the FDP is likelier to back removal of the eight-hour a day limit in favor of 48 hours a week as a maximum, in line with guidelines proposed by the European Union. An eight-hour day doesn’t always fit the digital economy and is seen as vulnerable under a new government. The current legal requirement granting workers a minimum of 11 hours uninterrupted leisure time between shifts is also considered vulnerable.
The proposals are not without controversy among union members. Other models such as allowing reduced time for some to offset overtime for others in each enterprise, or seeking five more days of vacation were also discussed, but discarded. Regional branches must sign off on the proposals later this month and contract talks for next year are expected to begin in November.
Frank Specht covers the German labor market and unions in Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article to English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.