BERLIN - German engineering union IG Metall said on Thursday steel workers in the poorer eastern part of the country were responding favorably to a strike ballot called following a dispute over shortening working hours. "The participation rate is very high," an IG Metall spokeswoman in Berlin said.
The union has called a three-day ballot to decide on a strike to back its demand for a cut in weekly working hours to 35 from the current 38, to bring the region into line with western Germany, where workers already have a 35-hour week.
The dispute comes as unions step up pressure on Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to water down his Agenda 2010 reform plan, which seeks to encourage growth by loosening restrictions on hiring and firing staff and cutting social security benefits.
About 7,000 IG Metall members at 17 steel companies including Arcelor unit Eko Stahl in east Germany are due to vote in the ballot, which runs until Saturday and could trigger a strike from early June.
A further 16,000 union members at 85 metal and engineering firms including two Volkswagen AG plants in the state of Saxony, are due to start a separate three-day ballot on Monday, union and industry spokesmen said.
IG Metall, which represents a total of some 310,000 workers in eastern Germany, says the gap between working hours in east and west, originally agreed to make up for the gap in productivity between the two sides, is increasingly unjustified given productivity advances by eastern German plants.
It is calling for the gradual harmonization of working hours across Germany but has said the process would be spread over several years.
The employers federation Gesamtmetall has rejected the demands, saying they would send "the wrong signal." "You have to realize that working hours in eastern Germany are already significantly shorter than in the most important competitor countries," Gesamtmetall President Martin Kannegiesser told German radio.
An IG Metall spokeswoman said eastern German steel industry had shrunk from some 100,000 workers before unification to some 9,000 today but that production currently outpaced overall output from the old east German industry.