BERLIN — Germany moved toward a major outbreak of work stoppages after the leader of the main public services union pledged Saturday to bring much of the country's public transportation to a standstill beginning Monday.
"At the beginning, it will be local transport services, riverboats and port facilities; trash removal will follow quickly," warned Monika Wulf-Mathies, chairwoman of the Union of Public Service and Transportation Employees, which is seeking higher wages. "People will have to adjust to the fact that from Monday, nothing will be operating in most areas."
The union leader's statement at a news conference in the southwestern city of Stuttgart followed the announcement that her members had voted by an overwhelming 88.9% to launch their first strike in 18 years.
The union has a membership of more than 2 million, and its vote was the latest and most serious turn in a string of failed labor negotiations in Germany, a country that since World War II has built its famous "economic miracle" on the basis of high wages in return for labor peace and competitive productivity levels. The impending turmoil is a direct result of management's withdrawal from its part of that trade-off.
Collectively, the stoppages threaten to become the most disruptive outbreak of labor unrest the postwar democratic German state has experienced.
Officials in Berlin and other major cities Saturday urged commuters to ride bicycles or join car pools to prevent chaos during the Monday morning rush hour.
After the pro-strike vote by the public service employees was announced, Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters appealed to the union to resume talks. "The burden of strikes by public service employees is carried solely on the backs of individual citizens," he said. "Polls have shown that people have no sympathy for this action."
His appeal had little immediate effect. Post office workers in Hamburg walked off the job Friday; their union announced a 96% pro-strike vote. More than 300 post offices in the northern part of the country closed Saturday, paralyzing mail service in the region.
German television reported Saturday evening that 20 tons of mail had gathered at Hamburg airport. In Frankfurt, the Union of German Railroad Employees said it also plans stoppages beginning Monday.
The sudden reluctance of German management to agree to large pay settlements results mainly from severe economic pressures stemming from German unification and the end of the Cold War.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government contends that the unexpectedly high costs of unification, inflationary pressures and other demands on the national budget make it impossible to meet the demands of the public sector union.
Citing this argument, the government rejected a compromise earlier this month presented by an independent arbitrator that called for a 5.4% wage hike, saying it could not afford more than 5%.
The government's latest offer is 4.8%, a figure the union rejected.
Other pressures are at work in the private industrial sector, where managers in German industry, who already pay the world's highest hourly wages (nearly 50% more than the U.S. average), have begun looking at new investment opportunities in Eastern Europe as an alternative to even higher labor costs at home.
Negotiations for a new contract in the construction industry collapsed Saturday, and union leaders in Germany's pivotal metalworking industry have called for a series of warning strikes beginning this week after angrily rejecting as an insult a management offer of 3.3%. They demand a 9.5% increase.