STUTTGART -- Over 60,000 DaimlerChrysler workers in Germany stopped work on Thursday to protest against plans by the carmaker to make Mercedes staff work longer hours, employee representatives said.
DaimlerChrysler is seeking to save 500 million euros ($618 million) in annual staff costs at Mercedes, its most profitable unit, but employee representatives have so far agreed to measures yielding only 180 million.
The group said on Monday it might cut 6,000 jobs at the Sindelfingen plant and shift some production of the new C-class Mercedes model to other plants in Germany and abroad if workers continued to oppose deeper cost cuts.
"These are not negotiations -- this is a brutal attempt at blackmail," said the head of DaimlerChrysler's works council, Erich Klemm, at the demonstration in Sindelfingen.
The dispute comes as pressure mounts on western European employees to work longer, take fewer holidays and do without collective wage agreements to prevent jobs disappearing to cheaper locations in less developed economies.
DaimlerChrysler is following a lead set by manufacturing giant Siemens, which last month clinched a deal with trade unions to raise working hours at two German plants to 40 hours a week from 35 without extra pay.
"It appears as if the (DaimlerChrysler) board is no longer primarily interested in saving money but rather in launching a full frontal assault," Klemm said.
DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Juergen Schrempp refused to put a timeframe on the talks. "I tell you from the outset that we will find at the end a mutually agreed settlement," he said. "We are in difficult negotiations."
DaimlerChrysler's works council said the disruption at Sindelfingen meant the company could lose production of about 800 vehicles on Thursday.
Some 20,000 workers at the Mercedes plant in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart, took part in a protest that started at 0700 GMT, DaimlerChrysler's works council said. They joined 10,000 night-shift colleagues who walked out in Hamburg, Berlin and Duesseldorf.
Over 10,000 walked out at Untertuerkheim -- another Mercedes site near Stuttgart, one of Germany's wealthiest regions -- the works council said. Around 20,000 more took part in action at six other sites throughout the country.
At Daimler's Untertuerkheim plant, employees railed against comments by the head of Mercedes, Juergen Hubbert, that the wage agreements in the company's home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg were a "disease".
"We thought about bringing protective masks or setting up a vaccination stand today, since there's apparently a disease circulating around here. And that's our wage agreements!" one union representative called out to the crowd of thousands of workers that filled Carl-Benz-Square in front of the plant.
One Daimler employee, who has been with the company for 19 years, said management should look elsewhere for cost savings: "We generate profits at Mercedes and they say we're the ones who are sick? And what about Mitsubishi and Chrysler -- are they healthy?"
Talks between the board, the works council and engineering union IG Metall are due to resume next Tuesday. More action at Sindelfingen is planned on Saturday.
One of the stumbling blocks is the company's attempt to end a 30-year old agreement giving workers the right to a five-minute break from the production line every hour.
In practice, the breaks are no longer taken individually but saved up and tacked onto annual holiday.
"You take away our breaks; we'll take away your peace and quiet," read one of the placards at the Sindelfingen protest.
The company has threatened to move production of the new C-class car, due in 2007, to its more efficient Bremen plant in northern Germany and to its East London factory in South Africa as well as drop plans to build derivative models.
Daimler sold about 281,000 of the C-class models last year, making the Mercedes mid-sized luxury car one of the brand's two top-selling lines.