BERLIN - Workers in the steel and engineering sectors in eastern Germany prepared to go on strike next week to demand a cut in working hours to match standards in west Germany, the IG Metall union said on Friday.
Engineering workers in the eastern state of Saxony joined colleagues in the steel industry in voting for a strike after talks with employers on harmonizing working hours broke down.
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.
IG Metall said just less than 80 percent of its members at 85 companies including Volkswagen AG had voted for the strike, well above the required 75 percent threshold.
The union said earlier this week that engineering strikes would start on Monday, alongside strikes in the steel sector, with car industry suppliers and machine engineering groups in the region around the towns of Chemnitz and Zwickau expected to be hit first.
IG Metall called the strike ballots in eastern Germany to demand a gradual reduction 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.
IG Metall, which represents 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 could be spread over several years.
Employers have said that industry in the still struggling eastern part of the country is too weak to afford the costs of shorter working hours.