BERLIN -- In what many view as a watershed development in Europe's largest economy, Germany appeared yesterday to be on the verge of its most serious labor unrest in decades.
Strikes by postal workers in Hamburg and autobahn maintenance employees in Cologne began yesterday. They seemed to be only the first shots in a war for higher wages.
The 135,000 members of the Union of German Salaried employees quickly followed yesterday with its own strike vote, and leaders of the 2.3-million public services union, OeTV, were expected to announce their large pro-strike vote today.
If they receive the required 75 percent majority required for a strike, they could order an immediate halt to key services such as garbage collection and public transportation in major cities.
At the same time, the world's largest industrial trade union, IG Metall, said it will begin a series of warning strikes in Germany's important metalworking and auto industries in pursuit of its demand for 9.5 percent wage increases.
The level of confrontation on the historically tranquil German labor relations front seems to be part of a major structural adjustment under way in Germany, an adjustment precipitated by the unexpectedly large costs of unification and by a new set of economic conditions prevailing in/the wake of the Cold War.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, desperately trying to contain ballooning budget deficits and inflation, is basically saying that the kind of settlements that have given the German worker the industrialized world's highest wages, shortest work week and longest vacations must end.
As a gesture to win public support for his position, Mr. Kohl announced Thursday that he and members of his Cabinet would take an immediate 5 percent salary cuts.
In addition to billions of dollars in new aid commitments to the former communist countries of eastern Europe, Germany is expected to spend about $125 billion on the reconstruction of the eastern part of the country this year alone.