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IG Metall sets work-life balance precedent with major victory

IG Metall has won its key demand that workers should have the right to reduce their working week from the standard 35 hours to 28 for a period of up to two years, for family and caring responsibilities. It is the first major union agreement that prioritizes working hours over wages.

The two-year, sector-wide collective agreement was signed between the union and the employer’s organization for South West Germany, Südwestmetall, after several rounds of tense negotiation, and a series of 24-hour “warning strikes” – the first of their kind in 34 years.

The strikes cost producers like Porsche, Daimler, BMW and Airbus almost €200 million in lost production. IG Metall threatened to ballot its members for extended industrial action if the employer body did not make a serious offer.

The agreement covers 900,000 workers in Germany’s industrial heartland. It is likely that employer organizations in other regions will sign up to the same terms, covering a total of 3.9 million workers.

The agreement will see a wage increase of 4.3 per cent over 27 months, as well as some supplementary payments. IG Metall had demanded a six per cent increase, while employers initially offered 2.3 per cent. The union turned down a subsequent offer of a 6.8 per cent increase in favour of the demand to reduce hours.

The agreement heralds the end of a decade of wage restraint in Germany, against a backdrop of strong economic recovery and the lowest unemployment since German reunification in 1990. Employers and the European Central Bank have anxiously awaited the results of the negotiations, which will affect wage settlements and economic forecasts across the continent.

“The collective agreement is a milestone on the way to a modern, self-determined working world,” said I G Metall chairman and IndustriALL president, Jörg Hofmann.

IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches said:

“In the past, companies demanded flexibility from workers, not the other way around. This has been turned on its head. Giving workers the right to shorten their working hours and determine their own work-life balance is an excellent union response to Industry 4.0.

“New technology means that productivity continues to rise, without necessarily creating new jobs. The right to work fewer hours, while still earning enough, is an essential response. The productivity gains from Industry 4.0 must be shared with society and workers, and reducing working time is a way to avoid greater concentration of wealth in the pockets of a few.

“The wage increase will also stimulate the German economy from below.”

IG Metall, with almost three million members, is one of the world’s biggest and most powerful unions.

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