Strike against increase in working time ends in compromise

In April 2006, after nine weeks of strike action by municipal employees in Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany, the United Services Union (ver.di) and the municipal employers’ association, KAV Baden-Württemberg, secured a new collective agreement on working time. The agreement stipulates that the standard weekly working time for municipal employees will increase by half an hour to 39 hours a week. It follows similar compromises in the federal states of Hamburg and Lower Saxony. Meanwhile, disagreement regarding the working time of public sector employees still continues in several federal states.

Background

On 9 February 2005, social partners in the public sector agreed on a new general framework collective agreement (Tarifvertrag öffentlicher Dienst, TVöD) for about 2.1 million public sector employees at national and municipal level, but not for public employees employed by the federal states (Länder). This agreement set the standard weekly working time of federal employees to 39 hours; for municipal employees, the weekly working time remains at 38.5 hours. However, the bargaining parties also agreed to an opening clause, which allowed public municipal employers in each of the German federal states to negotiate new working time arrangements of up to a maximum of 40 hours a week (DE0503203F). The union ver.di responded by insisting that it was opposed to any extension of the weekly working time. Meanwhile, public employers in Baden-Württemberg, Hamburg and Lower Saxony renounced the existing collective agreement provisions on working time and demanded an extension of working time to 40 hours a week. They argued that an extension was necessary because of the budget constraints of local authorities. Ver.di insisted that this would lead to further job losses in the public sector. Negotiations eventually broke down when employers insisted on a 40-hour week, after which ver.di finally called for industrial action.

The debate on the extension of working time dates back to 2003, when federal state public employers decided to unilaterally extend the weekly working time of career public servants at Land level (Landesbeamte), who are by law excluded from collective bargaining. Some states, for example Bavaria, ruled in favour of a 42-hour working week for their career public servants.

New agreement on working time

On 5 April 2006, the United Services Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di) and the Municipal Employers’ Association of Baden-Württemberg (Kommunaler Arbeitgeberverband Baden-Württemberg, KAV Baden-Württemberg) finally signed a new collective agreement on working time. The agreement, which took effect from 1 May 2006, stipulates that the standard weekly working time of municipal employees in Baden-Württemberg will increase by half an hour, from 38.5 hours to 39 hours, and not to 40 hours as was originally demanded by the employers. In addition, part-time employees will be allowed to adapt their weekly working time in order to avoid income losses, while apprentices and trainees will be able to maintain their 38.5-hour week. The new agreement, which runs until 31 December 2009, covers some 200,000 municipal employees in the public services sector of Baden-Württemberg. It follows nine weeks of strike action – the longest strike in the German public sector to date. The settlement was adopted in a ballot by 68.7% of trade union members.

Agreements in Hamburg and Lower Saxony

Similar collective agreements were concluded for municipal employees in Hamburg and in Lower Saxony following strikes lasting more than two weeks and four and a half weeks, respectively. In Hamburg, weekly working times will range between 38 and 40 hours and are differentiated according to age, pay levels and parenthood. Older employees and those in the lower and middle pay grades will work fewer hours than those in the top pay grades. For example, employees in the lower pay grades who are 50 years of age or older will work 38 hours per week whereas employees in the top pay levels will work a 40-hour week. Younger employees with children under the age of 12 years will have their weekly working times reduced by half an hour across all pay grades (except when entitled to a 38-hour week). It is the first time that a collective agreement relates working time to parenthood.

In Lower Saxony, the bargaining parties agreed to maintain the 38.5-hour week for employees in crèches and hospitals, and services such as refuse disposal. Moreover, public employers can insist that those employees take part in further training for a maximum of three days without pay. Other employees will have a weekly working time of 39 hours. The agreement in Hamburg, which covers about 20,000 employees, received approval from only 42% of the ver.di union members, whereas the settlement in Lower Saxony, covering about 120,000 municipal employees, was accepted by a 82.5% majority (25% approval is required to end the strike according the ver.di strike rules).

Reactions in Baden-Württemberg

Ver.di’s chief negotiator in Baden-Württemberg, Alfred Wohlfahrt, said that the new collective agreement was a difficult compromise, but stressed that the strike had at least prevented employers from enforcing a 40-hour week.

Meanwhile, public employers in Baden-Württemberg welcomed the outcome, albeit only as a first step, as the chief negotiator of public employers and social democratic mayor of Mannheim, Gerhard Widder, referred to it. In a newspaper article, President of the Municipal Employers’ Association (Vereinigung kommunaler Arbeitgeberverbände, VKA), Thomas Böhle, stated that the Baden-Württemberg compromise should serve as a blueprint for similar collective agreements for municipal employees in other west German states. He added that it would make sense to avoid a mix of different collective agreements. Minister of Finance in Baden-Württemberg, Gerhard Stratthaus, welcomed the agreement for municipal employees, but argued that it could not serve as a blueprint for federal state employees.

In other federal states, municipal employers have not yet decided whether to follow the Baden-Württemberg compromise, or to wait for the outcome of national negotiations for public employees at state (Land) level.

Disputes continue at state level

The Employers’ Association of German Länder (Tarifgemeinschaft deutscher Länder, TdL), which abandoned the negotiations concerning the TVöD at an early stage (DE0306202N) and which opposed the compromise of February 2005, rejected all three compromises reached at municipal level. Instead, it insisted on a return to the 40-hour working week. As a result, public employees are continuing to strike in various west German states. Negotiations at state level have been particularly difficult because of a special clause in the TVöD, which stipulates that if ver.di agrees with one of the TdL affiliates on a general 40-hour working week, then public employers at federal or local level may also be required to automatically introduce these provisions. Therefore, if ver.di wants to maintain the compromise now reached, it must not agree to any longer working times.

Collectively agreed provisions retain their validity even when the collective agreement expires, as long as no new agreement is signed (a principle known as Nachwirkung or ‘after-effect’) (DE9905200F). Therefore, for all employees covered by the old public sector collective agreement, the rules on working time stipulating a 38.5-hour week and other matters remain unchanged unless replaced by a new agreement. However, federal public employers can, and have, unilaterally introduced longer working times for all newly recruited employees. This means that the longer the negotiations at state level are unresolved, the more these new employees will not be covered by the old collectively agreed provisions.

Commentary

Ongoing disputes about the extension of working time for public employees at municipal and state levels highlight the fact that the era of uniform collective bargaining for all public employees ceased in 2003, when employers at state level withdrew from the bargaining table. The opening clause in the 2005 framework agreement, which allows municipal employers in each of the German states to renegotiate working times, has led to a further decentralisation of collective bargaining. Moreover, since substantial parts of the public sector have been privatised, many employees in former public transport and utilities sectors are now under new collective agreements outside the public sector. In addition, most public employees at state level work in administrative positions, and trade union membership is thought to be relatively low among their ranks. Employers at state levels are aware that it is difficult for ver.di to put huge pressure on the employers’ side. Rifts also exist within the TdL itself, and it remains to be seen whether some federal states (Länder) will negotiate separate compromises with the trade union, should no national agreement for all states be reached.

Heiner Dribbusch, Institute of Economic and Social Research, WSI

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