BERLIN -- Germany's engineering employers were cautious on Wednesday over whether talks with union leaders due later this week could end a regional strike which has caused widespread disruption to the country's key car industry.
Engineering and steel workers have been on strike for over three weeks in formerly communist eastern Germany, demanding a reduction in the working week from 38 hours to the 35 hours which is standard for their western colleagues.
Klaus Zwickel, head of the IG Metall union, and Martin Kannegiesser, leader of the Gesamtmetall employers group, will meet on Thursday before formal negotiations resume on Friday.
"We will come together on Friday. But whether we will manage (to have an agreement) by the weekend still remains to be seen. I'm not able to predict that," Roland Fischer, negotiator for eastern employers, told ZDF television.
"It very much depends on the extent IG Metall will move towards us," he said.
Employers have said they support harmonizing working hours with the west once economic conditions are right. They argue that longer working hours in the east are still justified 13 years after unification because of lower productivity.
STRIKE WEIGHS ON CAR SECTOR
Economists say paying the same wages for reduced hours would drive up wage costs in the east, where unemployment is at about 20 percent, causing the region to lose its competitive edge, driving investors to neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic.
But IG Metall says that it is high time to gradually adjust eastern working hours in several stages. Union leaders have warned that protests could be expanded to western sites if no agreement was reached with employers soon.
"On one issue, everyone has agreed: If no solution can be found at the weekend, then the activities will also take place in western Germany," IG Metall negotiator Hasso Duevel told German radio.
Even though only about 9,400 eastern German workers were on strike on Tuesday, about 10,000 western German workers in major car factories were idled by the strike, as the lack of key supplies from eastern plants hampered production in the west.
The strike forced a halt to production on Monday at BMW's Munich factory, where it builds 800 of its 3-Series cars per day and in Regensburg, where it makes 850 of the mid-sized cars.
Following an announcement by IG Metall that the strike would be halted at the car parts supplier ZF Friedrichshafen, BMW AG in Munich said it expected to re-start production of its key 3-series model on Monday.
Europe's largest carmaker Volkswagen has said the strikes would lead to the loss of 20,000 cars until the end of this week. The German car industry accounts for 10 percent of total industrial output and hundreds of thousands of jobs.