New IG Metall initiative demands further reduction in working time

In May 1998, Germany's IG Metall trade union presented a new "initiative on employment and working time policy" which contains several proposals for further working time reductions. In the short term, the metalworkers' union demands the introduction of the 35-hour week in eastern Germany, a reduction of overtime and the encouragement of part-time work and partial retirement until the year 2001. From 2001, the union will call for a further general working time reduction of 10%, either by the introduction of the 32-hour week or by a reduction of annual working time to 1,400 hours.

From 7-9 May 1998 the German metalworkers' trade union, IG Metall, held a conference with about 460 participants (mainly union workplace representatives and local trade union officers) to discuss the union's positions on future working time policy. In the run-up to the conference, the board of IG Metall presented a document on an IG Metall initiative on employment and working time policy (Beschäftigungs- und arbeitszeitpolitische Initiative der IG Metall) which contains various proposals for short- and medium-term strategy on further working time reductions.

Development of working time in metalworking

In the post-war history of German industrial relations, the metalworking sector has always been a pioneer in establishing major working time reductions. In this process, the concept of collective reduction of weekly working time has always been at the core of IG Metall's working time initiatives. Against the background of a normal working time of 48 hours over six days a week, the first negotiations on working time reductions started in the mid-1950s when IG Metall called for a 40-hour week and the establishment of a "free weekend". About 10 years of collective bargaining followed, with step-by-step working time reductions until the 40-hour week was finally introduced in 1967.

In the following years, there were no more major initiatives on working time reduction until 1977 when the IG Metall congress, for the first time, put in a claim for the 35-hour week. A breakthrough on the way towards the 35-hour week was reached in the 1984 collective bargaining round, which was accompanied by seven weeks of strikes and lockouts and saw one of the most controversial industrial disputes in German post-war history. From 1985, working time in metalworking was reduced, first to 38.5 hours and later over a period of 10 years to 35 hours in October 1995. Working time in west German metalworking is far below the average working time in western Germany, which is currently about 37.5 hours per week.

After German unification, the collective bargaining parties initially agreed on the introduction of the 40-hour week for east German metalworking. Later on, working time was reduced to 39 hours in 1994 and 38 hours in 1996 (for comparison, average working time in east Germany is still about 39.4 hours per week).

All working time reductions in German metalworking were introduced with "full wage compensation" (vollen Lohnausgleich), which meant that the employees kept the same wages and salaries even with a shorter working time. However, the west German metalworkers contributed to the "costs" of working time reductions by receiving accordingly lower wage increases.

Table 1: Development of weekly working time in the German metalworking industry
Weekly working time Date of introduction
Western Germany
48 hours Until 1956
45 hours 1 October 1956
44 hours 1 January 1959
42.5 hours 1 January 1962
41.25 hours 1 January 1964
40 hours 1 January 1967
38.5 hours 1 April 1985
37.5 hours 1 April 1988
37 hours 1 April 1989
36 hours 1 April 1993
35 hours 1 October 1995
Eastern Germany
43.75 hours Until 1990
40 hours 1 July/1 October 1990
39 hours 1 April 1994
38 hours 1 October 1996

Source: WSI Collective Agreement Archive 1998.

Since the 1980s, all working time reductions have been accompanied by an increased flexibilisation of working time. Among other issues, the collective bargaining parties in metalworking have agreed on:

  • the possibility for up to 18% of the workforce to work up to 40 hours per week on a permanent basis;
  • the introduction of working time "corridors", which give companies the possibility, within certain limits, to reduce or to extend working time (DE9803255F);
  • the possibility for further working time reduction without wage compensation for a limited period of time, in exchange for job guarantees; and
  • new regulations which make weekend work easier to introduce.

Working time reduction and employment

Since the 1980s, one of the central aims of IG Metall's working time policy has been to safeguard and create employment. Considering the rapid increases in productivity in German metalworking, the union took the viewpoint that a certain level of employment could be maintained only through a better distribution of work, which makes further working time reductions necessary. The employment effects of working time reduction, however, have always been heavily disputed among researchers as well as among the collective bargaining parties. According to IG Metall's own surveys and calculations. the reduction of weekly working time from 40 down to 35 hours had helped to secure or create nearly 300,000 jobs (see table 2 below).

Table 2: Number of jobs which were secured or created by working time reductions - IG Metall's view
Year Working time reduction introduced Number of secured or created jobs
In total . 294,700 jobs
1985 38.5-hour week 102,000 jobs
1988 37.5-hour week 58,000 jobs
1989 37-hour week 35,700 jobs
1993 36-hour week 50,000 jobs
1995 35-hour week 50,000 jobs*

* estimated

Source: IG Metall.

IG Metall initiatives for further working time reduction

Under the conditions of a persistently high level of unemployment in Germany, with nearly 5 million people officially registered as unemployed, IG Metall sees a strong need for further working time reductions. This is particularly true for metalworking, where about 30% of all jobs were lost between 1991 and 1997. According to the Swiss-based Prognos-Institut a further decline of 16% in metalworking employment can be expected until the year 2010 if there is no further working time reduction.

However, IG Metall has also recognised that proposals for further working time reduction create a significant scepticism among employees more generally and among its own membership (DE9709127F). There are at least three arguments which underlie this scepticism:

  1. many employees are afraid that further working time reduction would lead to a decrease in wages and salaries;
  2. many employees are afraid that further working time reduction would lead to a further intensification of work and increase work stress; and
  3. many employees had had bad experiences with working time flexibility which did not lead to more individual "time sovereignty", but made the employees even more dependent on the working time policy of the company.

Considering these arguments, IG Metall has made it clear that further steps towards working time reduction must be accompanied by full wage compensation, better protection against work stress and new regulations on working time flexibility which create a better balance between the interests of the individual employees and the company. The union's proposals are set out below.

Short-term proposals for working time reduction until 2001

The current valid collective framework agreements (Manteltarifvertrag) for west German metalworking, which include the provision on the 35-hour week, will be in force until the end of 2000. Therefore, in the next few years IG Metall will not demand further weekly working time reduction in western Germany. However, the union has made several proposals for a short-term working time policy until 2001, such as:

  • the introduction of the 35-hour week in east German metalworking;
  • the introduction of the 35-hour week in the German metalworking trade;
  • the reduction of overtime;
  • greater compensation of overtime with additional free time, rather than money;
  • an increase in the number of part-time workers, through an improvement of part-time working conditions;
  • better use of collective agreements to safeguard jobs (Beschäftigungssicherungstarifverträge), which would allow further working time reduction without wage compensation for a limited period of time; and
  • better use of partial retirement.

Medium-term proposals for working time reduction from the year 2001

In April 1997, the leader of IG Metall, Klaus Zwickel, proposed a general reduction of working time to 32 hours per week (DE9704208F). As this proposal is heavily disputed, even within the trade union, IG Metall is now proposing a general 10% working time reduction from 2001, to be achieved either:

  • by the introduction of the 32-hour week; or
  • by a reduction of annual working time from the present 1,532 hours (in 1997) to 1,400 hours.

In addition, IG Metall proposes additional working time reductions for employees with special workloads - such as those engaged in shift and night work, shortly-cycle work or work with high occupational risks.

Metalworking employers' associations react

The German metalworking employers' association, Gesamtmetall, sharply rejected the new IG Metall working time initiative. In the employers' view, the union proposals for a further general working time reduction would only serve to increase labour costs and lead to a decline in competitiveness of German companies which would ultimately destroy even more employment. According to the president of Gesamtmetall, Werner Stumpfe, there is no need for a general working time reduction but a strong need for further working time flexibility. Mr Stumpfe renewed the proposal from Gesamtmetall to introduce a working time corridor of between 30 and 40 hours per week (DE9712240F). Under this proposal, the actual working time would be determined at company level between the management and the works council.

A particularly strong reaction to the proposals of IG Metall also came from the east German metalworking employers' association Ostmetall (DE9803157N). The president of Ostmetall, Manfred Kreutel, declared that a further weekly working time reduction from 38 to 35 hours would mean the end of branch-level collective bargaining in east German metalworking, because after such a decision most of the eastern companies would simply withdraw from the employers' association and thereby leave the coverage of the collective agreement.


With its new working time initiative, IG Metall has started to bring the issue of working time reduction back onto the agenda of collective bargaining. Historical experience, however, shows that major working time reductions in Germany have always been the result of a rather long-term process accompanied by a strong conflict of interests between labour and capital. Currently, the sharp rejection by the sector's employers of any form of general collective working time reduction gives a first impression of the potential for conflicts which might overshadow the forthcoming collective bargaining rounds in German metalworking.

One of the core arguments against further working time reduction is that under the conditions of globalised, or at least "Europeanised", markets an isolated national working time initiative would lead only to significant losses in national competitiveness. The new IG Metall working time initiative, however, coincides with similar initiatives all over Europe such as the project for the 35-hour week in France (FR9804103F) and Italy (IT9803159N) or demands for various forms of working time reduction in Sweden (SE9803177N) Switzerland or very recently in Denmark (DK9805168F). The European Metalworkers' Federation (EMF) has announced that it will try to summarise all the national initiatives in a joint European campaign for shorter working time.

Finally, there is little doubt that future economic growth alone will not be able to solve the problem of mass unemployment. Therefore, further working time reductions will continue to be an indispensable instrument to fight unemployment. On the other hand, IG Metall is fully aware that there is no single way to safeguard and create employment and that working time policy can only be one element in a broader policy concept. Consequently, the union calls for a "new social contract for full employment" which embeds collective bargaining in a new active economic, financial and social employment policy conducted by the state. (Thorsten Schulten, Institute for Economics and Social Science (WSI))

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