BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder appealed for calm on Friday after protests at carmaker DaimlerChrysler threatened to spur nationwide disputes over working hours and derail Germany's fragile recovery.
"Whoever wants to dig ideological trenches on this matter will unsettle people and therefore damage the economy," Schroeder, whose reforms have upset many in Germany, said in an interview with Financial Times Deutschland.
"I recommend that these things be sorted out on a company-by-company basis and that they be discussed as little as possible," said the chancellor who has angered unions and the German public over his Agenda 2010 package of welfare cuts and bid to loosen Germany's labor market.
Over 60,000 DaimlerChrysler workers in Germany downed tools on Thursday to protest against plans by the carmaker to make Mercedes staff work longer hours.
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.
In the ensuing debate, some economists and executives have proposed Germans work even more than 40 hours per week, one even suggesting 50 hours, and forgo some of their six weeks of annual vacation.
Frank Bsirske, head of the giant services union Verdi, said the dispute provided a vital test of the future of collective labour agreements.
Stoppages continued through the night into Friday. One works council deputy chairman, Wolfgang Nieke, said workers would not bow to company "blackmail".
Fellow manufacturers have meanwhile welcomed the firm's role as an icebreaker in the face of union intransigence.
Schroeder, whose party has plummeted in opinion polls to record lows, sought to mollify, insisting German companies needed to have flexibility of working hours to respond to markets, but only in consultation with unions.
The chancellor has to tread a fine line between boosting industry in Europe's largest economy, where the only impetus so far has been from exporters, warding off a threatened breakaway of leftwing party rebels and pacifying the disgruntled unions.
Two years ahead of his bid for a third term in office, he has slowed the pace of new reforms despite the official message of full steam ahead. Verdi branded plans to cut jobless benefit a breach of the law at the cost of the poor and unemployed.
Engineering union IG Metall, which covers the car industry, had already agreed wide-ranging opt-out clauses in its latest wage deal, Schroeder said, adding that it was wrong to be obsessed with fixing a nationwide set limit on working hours.
Carl-Peter Forster, president and deputy chairman of General Motors Europe, told reporters on Wednesday that Opel's German plants were not competitive, saying it could help if certain areas worked more than 35 hours.
Opel is in talks with employees about introducing longer hours at its Bochum works.
Luxury carmaker BMW is also looking into longer working in certain areas, although insists it is seeking more flexible working time, rather than a standard 40-hour week.
"We support any measure aimed at maintaining Germany as a production location," said CEO Helmut Panke.