LUDWIGSFELDE, Germany -- Auto workers in eastern Germany striking for shorter hours shrugged off attacks that they are hurting the region's weak economy on Thursday, vowing to fight as long as it takes to get better conditions.
Workers manning a picket line at a DaimlerChrysler plant in Ludwigsfelde near Berlin said they were sick of being treated as second-class citizens compared with their western counterparts who work three hours less a week, 13 years after German unification.
"We're doing the same work as people in the west but we have to work more and get paid less. We feel like second class workers. We just want some equality," said Uwe Maaske, a 59-year old worker standing outside the factory gates.
Workers at Ludwigsfelde and other east German plants have been on strike for over three weeks, demanding a cut in the working week from 38 hours to the 35 hours standard in the west.
"We'll strike until the bitter end -- until we get the 35 hour week," said Andreas Schaare, another worker.
The strike idled western plants at luxury carmaker BMW AG this week because gearboxes made at an eastern plant were not being delivered, sparking warnings that feeble growth in the entire German economy was being put at risk.
"In the beginning, I thought it was okay that we were getting paid less. People were still investing in this area and we made less revenue here," said Olaf Stoecker, a fellow worker. "But things have changed since, and they have improved a lot."
Engineering union IG Metall says recent improvements in productivity in the east warrant equal working hours.
COMPETITIVE EDGE AT RISK
But economists warn that the region, where the rate of unemployment at about 19 percent is more than double than the eight percent in the west, needs a lasting competitive edge to catch up with the west.
And shorter working hours now would drive investors to neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic, economists say.
The strike is dividing east Germany itself, with a recent survey showing 52 percent of east Germans are against the strike, while 39 percent support it.
"It's the wrong time for this strike," said Stefan Kurze, shopping at a supermarket a few streets away from the car plant.
"People here can be lucky if they have a job at all. And DaimlerChrysler might decide to move production elsewhere if the 35-hour week gets introduced," added the 37-year old, who is working 40 hours per week for customs.
Leaders of IG Metall and the Gesamtmetall employers' federation came together on Thursday to hammer out the basis of a deal ahead of the re-start of formal negotiations on Friday.
At the DaimlerChrysler factory in Ludwigsfelde, about 22,000 Vaneo cars are produced annually and about 1,700 people work at the site, making it one of the region's main employers. Since June 17, production has been halted.
One firm has resorted to flying strike-breaking workers into its plant by helicopter to avoid picket lines.
Standing on the picket line with about 200 fellow workers, Schaare said it was an unfortunate side effect that workers in the west had also become affected by the strike. But he called on these colleagues to support the fight for equal conditions.
"In the end, what we are fighting for is the unification of Germany --- 13 years on," he said.