100,000 metalworkers protest sick-pay cuts

BONN, Germany (AP) — Carrying banners warning Germany’s welfare state is under threat, more than 100,000 metalworkers staged nationwide walkouts and rallies Tuesday to protest a cut in sick pay for all Germans.
“The next thing you know, they’ll cut into our vacation money and Christmas bonuses,” said 31-year-old Mario Raster, one of about 80,000 Daimler-Benz workers who walked off the job at 50 plants across Germany.
Germany is Europe’s largest and most influential economy, and successful cuts in social benefits there could encourage other European Union governments to do the same. EU nations are slicing spending to become more competitive and prepare for planned currency union.
On Monday, teachers in France staged a 24-hour strike to protest government plans to cut 5,000 teaching jobs, part of an austerity budget. Italy’s government last week presented its own deficit-fighting measures, which include across-the-board spending cuts.
Tuesday’s job actions in Germany at plants owned by the Daimler-Benz industrial group and automakers Adam Opel AG and Ford were timed to coincide with the start of a new law enabling German companies to reduce sick-pay benefits from full pay to 80 percent.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed the legislation through parliament on Sept. 13, and it took effect Tuesday. Besides cutting sick pay, it makes it easier for German companies to fire workers and raises the age workers are entitled to begin receiving pensions. Further cuts are in the works.
Social benefits in Germany are among the most generous in the world. Workers receive six weeks vacation, subsidized stays at health spas, numerous religious holidays and often a month’s salary at Christmas.
Kohl says some benefits must be cut to make Germany competitive in the world market and to reduce joblessness, which hit a postwar record 4 million people earlier this year.
Daimler-Benz announced last week it would implement the sick-pay legislation even before its existing contracts expire. Other major concerns quickly followed suit, including BASF, Hoechst, Schering, Mannesmann, Continental and Opel.
On Tuesday, about 11,000 Ford employees walked out in Cologne and 19,000 left their jobs at three plants owned by Opel, the German subsidiary of General Motors Corp.
Karl Feuerstein, the national works council chairman at Daimler, Germany’s largest industrial concern, said at least 80,000 Daimler workers had walked out and more than 4,000 Mercedes cars and trucks had failed to make it off assembly lines as a result.
“Factory buildings and offices are empty and grounds in front of the factories are filled with more (protesting) people than at any time in the history of this company,” Feuerstein said.
The strikers included 8,000 employees at Daimler’s DASA aerospace subsidiary.
“We will not cease our action until Opel AG takes back this breach of contract,” Peter Jaszczyk, chairman of the works council at an Opel plant in Bochum, told a noisy rally outside the plant.
Kohl’s spokesman, Peter Hausmann, defended the sick-pay cuts, saying “the social state is not being dismantled.”
Still, the government seemed displeased with companies that implemented the law before renegotiating contracts.
“The chancellor has pointed out that valid pay contracts should be kept,” Hausmann said.
Leaders of the IG Metall union said job actions would continue unless companies agree to renegotiate contracts.
About 16,000 Mercedes employees put down their tools in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart and 10,000 more did the same at the carmaker’s main plant in nearby Untertuerkenheim.
Outside the Untertuerkenheim factory, protesting workers blew whistles and carried protest signs bearing slogans such as “Hands Off the Social State.”