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Germany: Eastern Workers Seek Job Parity

  • Roland Eggleston

Workers in eastern Germany have been benefiting from investment by western German companies. But they are working longer hours, and for lower pay, than their colleagues in western provinces. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich that eastern workers, tired of waiting for the promise of equal treatment to be fulfilled, are beginning to agitate.

Munich, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Banners displayed by striking workers at an industrial plant in the eastern German city of Dresden proclaim: "The East Is Not Second Class." And on the podium, the secretary of the local labor union branch shouts into a microphone: "We want to walk down the streets with our heads held high."

This is eastern Germany today -- 10 years after the former communist state was united with wealthy West Germany. Discontented workers in the five eastern German states are now demanding what they have long been promised by the federal government: equality with workers in the western part of the country. They want the same wages, the same working hours, and the same benefits, east and west.

Earlier this month, about 25,000 workers in the electrical and metal-processing industries in the former East Germany walked off the job for several hours to publicize their demands for equal rights with workers in western Germany.

The strikes came in reaction to an agreement negotiated in late March by the western German metal workers union, I.G. Metall. The deal gave the union's 3 million members a 5.1 percent wage increase over two years. But the increase did not apply to workers in eastern Germany.

I.G. Metall says it supports equal wages for its members in the eastern part of the country. Elke Huber, a Dresden-based representative for the union, says I.G. Metall did not press for equality in this year's negotiations because it knew the employers' side would not agree. But she says it is working toward equality as soon as possible.

"It is about money in the pocket but it is also about dignity. Ten years after unification, the workers in the east of Germany are justified in demanding the same conditions as those in the west."

One of the 11 industrial plants in the eastern province of Saxony that joined the brief warning strike is Planeta, a producer of off-set printing machines. Planeta is owned by a company based in western Germany. According to the labor union, the machines it produces sell well and make a sizeable contribution to the company's profit.

The workers at Planeta are proud of this. But with some bitterness, they say they contributed to that success by working longer hours than their colleagues in the same company in western Germany. As is customary in eastern Germany, the Planeta workers put in 38 hours a week, while those in the west worked only 35 hours.

Officially, pay rates are the same. But in practice, the eastern German workers at Planeta earn less overall, because they receive a smaller annual bonus and have no company pension plan. They also enjoy less protection against dismissal.

Labor unions at Planeta tried to negotiate a better deal in talks with management last month. They offered to keep the 38-hour work week for the next five years, but in return demanded that Planeta management begin paying into a company pension plan next year. The labor union asked management for a monthly contribution of 26 German marks (about 13 dollars) for each worker -- considerably less than what is paid in the west. But management refused to accept it.

A management representative told RFE/RL that productivity in the eastern plants is less than in the western ones, and that therefore labor costs in the east must be kept down. And the president of the Employers Association, Dieter Hundt, says industrialists who try to revive failing factories and businesses in the east face high costs, and that the wages they pay must reflect that.

I.G. Metall and other German labor unions reject that attitude as false. Wages may be lower in the east, they say, but most things in eastern Germany cost as much as they do in western Germany -- food, clothing, holidays, and other things.

Labor unions are threatening more strikes. And they have warned the government that inequality of wages between east and west will be a major issue in future election campaigns.