Working Time Reduction in Germany

Submitted by libcom on July 23, 2005

Wildcat No. 33 - September 1984

This is a draft translation, not corrected, but it might be useful for readers in the UK or US because today there are new discussions about working time reduction. The German experience might prevent some illusions often connected with this kind of union politics.
Working Time Reduction in Germany
Demystifying the glorious 35-hour-week, which started in 1984

"We've never got as wet before as with that strike."
(A worker at Kühler-Behr, a factory in South-Germany)

"The IGM has won the battle ideologically, we have won it economically."
(A manager after the contract was signed)

In the "battle for the 35 hour week" the bosses have succeeded in materializing their main intentions.: Wage reductions as seen during the two preceding years will continue, backed by contract now, for another two years, which will mean peace on the front of the collective agreements. The regular working day of eight hours is a thing of the past. The collective agreements formerly compulsory for everyone have been loopholed to accomodate "the shop's needs". The shaping of matters within the 35-40 hour framework, will be handed over to the shops.

The IGM has won the battle "ideologically" because the "bosses' taboo" of the 40 hour week has been abandoned. A dubious success, as for the bosses the matter boils down to an increase of flexibility in the restrictions of working time, which have been considered all too rigid. The agreement says expressly: "The difference between 37 and 40 hours shall be made up for in a sensible way. Here, the shop's needs are to be taken into account." For added clarity: "Because of the re-regulation of working time there shall not be a decrease in the time of utilization of capacity."

On the side of capital there is solid satisfacton with regard to the contract. Share's indexes went up immediately after the "Leber compromise" was spelled out to the public. BDA president Esser stated "the satisfactory outcome" had above all been due to "the readiness of management, to go through the struggle in solidarity with IG Metall". This particular "collective agreement consent" could mean "a new beginning for a more flexible outline of working conditions overall". In a long interview for DIE ZEIT Blüm summed up the importance of the new collective agreement as follows: "A new chapter has been opened in the politics of collective agreements. The outcome is of importance far beyond the question of working time, because the trade unions have committed themselves to a cooperation with the shops. And in no other way can the indispensable flexibility become feasible. Those, who believe they can cope with everything from a central position and through multi-regional collective agreements, will find themselves in a dead end. On the other hand we can not dissolve collective agreements in a way that makes people in each and every shop do as they please. There's got to be a common line. Under the laudable guidance of Georg Leber the parties of the agreement have sought this balance, namely, to have the parties of the collective agreement draw up the framework, yet particular needs may be taken into account within the shops. Flexibility is in need of a new dimension of time. We have to get rid of the tight corset of the working time set on the basis of a week. We need more extended patterns of measurement. At the same time flexibility presupposes a new dimension of space: the shops have to be able to interpret and to apply the contracts according to their particular situation." (DIE ZEIT, 6.7.1984)

Blüm in his slick way gives a description of the precious artwork the trade unions have crafted: In a campaign focussed on the issue of "weekly working time according to collective agreements" they have succeeded in settling a contract which not only does away with the "normal working day". In fact it sets a limit to working time only as an average during a period of two months. What's more, they have, under a veil of propaganda against the "concept of flexibility" of the organised managemt, opened the door for that strategic concept. Essentially the contract creates the basis for lowering the unit labour costs. The bosses will manage to squeeze more value per hour out of the workers.

a) It all begins with the simple observation that the efficiency per hour can be raised, when the working hours per day are cut. In an election broadcast in march Lothar Späth spelled out the truth: Look at the new plants, the BASF-Plant at Ettlingen etc. Work is automated there to such an extent that the workers simply cannot work there for 40 hours a week any more. Here, the 36-hour-week, the 30-hour-week or--if you insist--the 35-hour-week will reality. (In analogy, it was Bosch who first introduced the eight-hour-day at the beginning of this century, so as to be able to exploit his workers more thoroughly.)

b) What's more, the rise of mass unemployment during recent years has been accompanied by an unusually high amount of overtime hours (The well-known arithmetic, according to which two millions of registered unemployed would simply vanish if overtime work would be abandoned). Besides many advantages that situation entailed a big disadvantage for the bosses, as infallibly after the end of the eighth hour of work substantial overtime premiums had to be paid (in quite few sectors "high average wages" had been earned through overtime work). These additional bonuses will now be a thing of the past if the planning capacities of the capitalist are adequate, because

c) the contract is one step further towards a situation where only work is being paid which has actually been delivered. I used to be that the capitalist employed you eight hours a day and five days per week. Then, he continuously had a certain amount of "extra manpower", as people were sick sometimes, took a vacation or were unavailable for different reasons - or maybe because the level of orders was uneven, a loss due to a downtime of machinery had to be made up for etc. All this has been diminished massively during recent years. Employers followed a policy of minimal regular manpower. Vacation time, sickness periods, production peaks - all this has been put in line through slave work dealers or temporal contracts. Yet, there was still the case of a temporal lack of work, the case of departments being manned uneavenly. From now on this will not be a problem any more: Working time will not be the same any more for everybody. It may vary between departments as long as it attains an overall average of 38.5 hours.

The contracts are a further step towards a continuous running of machinery. For the first time an explicit difference is being made between the personal working time and a working time of the shop. In some cases they will pave the way for new round the clock time systems. Plants like Nacanco or Fulda Tyres, which had contracted a cut in working time, have been examples. The price of the cut in working time was the fourth shift. It brought a continuous running time of machinery during 144 hours in a week for the capitalists and a three shift system plus a six day week for the workers. This is particularly important for plants with an extremely high ratio of investment capital (high organic composition of capital) like Nacanco or Fulda Tyres. Textile plants in Italy with a similar composition of capital have recently settled contracts based on a 30-day-week with seven work days. According to the new collective agreement, the employer just has to inform what your work load will be during the month to come, and he has to provide that in the average of two months the contracted work time of the individual or the department as a whole (between 37 and 40 hours) is accomplished. In that case he may decide, that one department has got to work 50 hours a week for some time and another one just 30 hours. It ist still legal to ask for overtime work but the account period for the premium is the week within a given two months. And overtime work may be asked for to a much higher quota than Blüm had intended his new "Arbeitszeitordung" to give room for.

After capital has split the class up into millions of staff workers and precarious workers during the recent period, we are now witnessing an increase in "precarisation" of staff workers and the deepening of splits within their group.

1) They have no legal claim any longer to ask for wages according to a 40 hour week. A kind of "capacity oriented working time" gives a lot more decision power to the employer regarding the proletarian time management. Plus he can exploit them to a higher degree during the paid working time. And finally a good many overtime premiums will disappear, adding up to a decrease in the average of wages, which are already suffering under insufficient wage contracts.

2) The bill lokks quite differnt for workers employed in the booming sectors and for those with qualifications that are in high demand. They have traditionally worked a lot more than 40 hours a week and they will go workin 50 hours and more. Their increase in wages will be 5.9% nominally - the highest increase for years. Wage diffences in the metal industry of Baden-Württemberg which have been very substantial in the past will go on increasing.

The whole fits neatly into capitalist and government strategies: Securing a legal working time of 48 hours a week, making feasible working week of 84 hours, "deflation" of regulations for safety at work, trashing of the "Arbeitnehmerüberlassungsgesetz" [special regulation for temporary employment agencies]--to name but a few.

This contract has been the sweetheart of the trade union leadership right from the start.

Remember what Blüm said: 38.5-flexibilisation is an example in the art of balance. This has been the truth all the way.

At the trade union congress of 1977 a small majority of the delegate activists had pushed trough the decision in favour of 35 hours against the opposition of the executive committee. Two years later the trade union leaders secured the 40 hour week once more in the basic agreement for the metal industry and - at the same time - introduced a decrease in the working time per week along with a new shift schedule for the steelworkers, experimentally in a way. (It brought about a heavy fight with the steelworkers who had fought for 35 hours resolutely in mid-winter.) As late as 1982 the IGM Leadership decided to engage in "the battle for the 35 hour week".

The set of ideas which served to homogenize the trade union burocracy has from the beginning and at no time followed a "workers line". In other words, not the claim for less work, but "labour market sensibility": dividing up the "work at disposal", an unemployed worker is more costly to "the economy" than dividing work into loads for more shoulders etc.

Effectively decreasing working time has never been an intentiuon. The proof lies in the fact, that the difference between working time according to collective agreements and effective working time has at no time been made a topic of discussion, that nothing has been done against the continuing increase in working time at the hands of the employers (terrorizing sick workers, overtime work), that there have been no discussions about overtime work being scab work in times of mass unemployment etc. There is a very prominent indication of the fact that the trade union leadership didn't think of a reduction of working time.: The core demand has never been defined in real world dimensions. It would for instance have been possible to propagate a four day week or a seven hour day. Demanding a "seven hour day" - the same as the 35 hour week on the level of arithmetics - would have left nothing but the paid breaks as a compromise, in other words: a 7.5 hour day. This would have given more non work time to workers. The employers would drawn up new shift schedules at best - continuous three shift models. The happy go lucky 35 hour claim was the planned opening that allowed Leber to march through with his "compromise".

But the "labour market idea" which served as a fundament for the whole campaign, is nothing but propaganda in itself. DGB trade unions love to argue in terms of "economy". But then a reduction of working hours with full wage refund inevitably leads to a hike in the piece rates on the employers' side. Why should they create more jobs then? It would only make sense if the capitalist point of view is abandoned, i.e. that an enterprise has to yield a surplus. From the point of view of the worker a guaranty of employment can only be enforced if you say: Your returns are completely irrelevant to me. We are interested in our own income and that is why nobody is going to loose a job here. That, by the way, is an attitude, which other trade unions in western europa have shown at least in a similar way, yet never the DGB unions. Only from a position such as that a reduction of working time would have an impact on the labaour market.

The DGB unions on the other hand have always counted upon the productivity of west german capital, upon its ability to compete successfully in the global marketplace. During the sixties they admittedly acted as an institution, which by applying the "rationalization whip", forced west german employers to increase continuously their productivity and their ability to compete worldwide. Only within that framework the balancing of interests of this years collective »bargaining battle" can be fully grasped. The strategy of diminishing job and wage security has put the core workforce of the shops and their delegates, the trade unions under pressure. On the other hand west german capital has been pleading intensively for continuous run time of machinery, work on saturdays, less fringe costs of wages, more flexibility etc. The "campaign for 35 hours" has right from the start been intended as a combination of both: The "reduction of working time" was meant to be a sugar lump for the core workforce of the shops who had been served real wage reductions again and again. The argument of "labour market politics" included the unemployed on a level of propaganda. For them the DGB unions had done virtually nothing - and they will not lift a hand for them, if not in the wayx of Steinkühlers tough intentions of control and neutralization.