BERLIN -- Public service workers across Germany early today launched the biggest mass strike here since the end of World War II.
Strikes began in Hamburg on Saturday when postal office employees and stage hands at the opera left their jobs. By the end of this week, as many as 2.6 millions members of Germany's OTV public service union are expected to be on strike for higher wages, which the government is resisting.
In balloting over the weekend, about 89 percent of OTV members voted to strike, considerably more than the 79 percent who voted for the last general strike in 1974.
OTV represents transit, day care, hospital, gas, electric and water department workers, some police and fire personnel, trash collectors and even the canal operators.
As many as 5 million construction and metal workers are poised to join the strike if it lasts past the end of the week.
With walkouts burgeoning across the country, Germany's reputation for stable labor-management relations seemed shattered. The strikecould hardly come at a worse time for the German economy, which is plagued by inflation, high interest rates and unexpected costs of unification.
Economists have predicted the possibility that Germany's stalled economy could slip into recession if the strike continues more than a few days. Many think it will.
In Berlin, the strike began at midnight when subway and elevated trains stopped and buses pulled into their depots. Their operators immediately set up picket lines.
In a way, the conditions that caused the strike are the result of unifying this city and this country, for reunification has cost billions of dollars.
Standing on the platform at the Zoo underground stop a few hours before drivers pulled their buses off the streets, a tall woman in a blue transit uniform spoke of what was driving her to leave her job. "Everything's become more expensive. We have more taxes to pay. Higher pay is justified."
She's 21 and she's dressed up her polyester suit with a silk designer scarf. She starts subway trains for a living and she makes about $1,500 a month.
"You have very little private time," she says. "You work 10 hours, then you sleep."
She's new on her job and says she doesn't want to give her name, even to a U.S. reporter. Today she is on the picket line with the 82,000 strikers in Berlin who have joined the nationwide work stoppage.
In the heart of Berlin, the Zoo station is one of the busiest in all of Germany. Subway, bus and elevated lines all converge here. Overhead trains leave for Munich and Frankfurt, Paris and Moscow. Today, all that is supposed to stop.
But in one of those oddities left over from the country's separation,eastern German transit workers remain on the job because they negotiate their contracts separately. In Berlin, they'll drive their buses up to the line of the old wall and turn around.
Overwhelming approval by union members in the weekend strike votes is a measure of wider discontent in western Germany, reflected in gains by right-wing nationalist parties and by growth in anti-foreigner sentiment.
Accustomed to a generation of continual affluence, Germans in the west have become embittered by high taxes; rising living costs, especially for housing; high interest rates, and even their transfer payments to east Germany.
They feel that ordinary workers in the west are bearing the burden of the cost of reunification.
The government has refused to give the unions the 5.4 percent rise suggested by an arbitrator. The government offer hovers around 4.8 percent, roughly equal to the inflation rate. The unions, once inclined to accept 5.4 percent, have reverted to a 9.5 percent demand.
To avert chaos, Berlin has a plan that includes hiring private buses and asking people to leave their cars at home and ride their bikes to work.