You're going soft, Germans are told Golden worker benefits begin to tarnish

November 06, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- In the workaday world of western Germany, wages are high, vacations are long, hours are short and health care is free. Retirement comes before age 60, and it's comfortable. For those who stumble, the social welfare net is wide and sturdy.

But after nearly half a century of climbing to reach this plateau, Germans are hearing a new message from business and government about their envied standard of living: They should be ashamed. They've gone soft. They're whiny, inefficient goof-offs who've become somehow un-German.

Past boasts of fat salaries and benefits have turned into laments of burdensome "worker costs." Labor and management groups that once charted their futures together are at each other's throats. And for the first time since the beginning of the nation's long-running "Wirtschaftswunder" (economic miracle) following World War II, Germans are being exhorted to settle for less.

Make no mistake, Germany is still a wealthy nation. But powerful blows of recession and reunification have overturned a basketful of serpents in the wage earner's Garden of Eden. Everything, from rising neo-Nazi violence and heightened East-West tension to mass layoffs and big tax increases, has slithered onto the landscape, nibbling at the support for the political parties that have run the country since the war.

The result is that Germany has reached a political and economic turning point just as the rest of a remade Europe was preparing to follow its lead. And as the country gropes for a new direction, some leaders have decided that the first step should be a nationwide attitude adjustment.

"We have to abandon the attitudes of demanding income increases every year and more leisure time," says Economics Minister Guenter Rexrodt, who began the effort with a critical report on German economic competitiveness. "We have to return to the traditional values like diligence, punctuality and reliability. These values aren't lost, but See when a person is doing too well, he tends to backslide."

It is an odd public relations campaign to begin on the brink of an election year, especially with polls showing low popularity ratings for Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Party. Yet, Mr. Kohl has joined in vigorously, calling for "new thinking" and a return to the industrious habits that followed the war.

Two weeks ago, he chided his countrymen in a major speech, saying: "Today we have an average of six weeks of vacation and 12 holidays each year. We work an average of 37 1/2 hours a week, which is less than all our competitors. . . . It seems like there is still nothing more important [to Germans] than thinking about how we can expand our recreation time. . . . We cannot organize our country like one big recreation park."

Tough times for some

The scolding doesn't go over well among those facing layoffs.

"You hear that kind of talk and you lose your courage, your patriotic beliefs," says Markus Teuber, a Berlin toolmaker whose manufacturing company will shut down at the end of the year. "Mr. Kohl should step down from his chair and come here and take a look for himself. Then he would change his opinion."

Sometimes it seems that Mr. Kohl is already changing his opinion. His government has seemed confused at times over exactly what its new message means. After repeatedly emphasizing the need for longer working hours and less free time, government officials, including Mr. Rexrodt, began talking late last week of a job-saving proposal that would offer workers three-month unpaid leaves in suffering industries.

But government and business leaders have been clear and consistent on one major point -- their desire to reverse more than 40 years of steady gains in worker benefits and social programs.

The German parliament has already approved cuts in unemployment pay and is considering the suggestions of Mr. Kohl's Cabinet to cut child care benefits and freeze social security benefits for a year.

Businesses large and small, meanwhile, announce more layoffs every week. Others seek to freeze or cut pay. The construction industry set off a protest march of 100,000 workers by proposing to get rid of "rainy day" money paid when bad weather idles employees.

But the biggest recent blow may have come from Volkswagen, long regarded as a peace-loving softy when it comes to dealing with its German employees, despite their low productivity ratings when compared with VW employees in other countries.

Only two months after offering a generous early retirement package to stimulate cutbacks [five work-free years at 90 percent salary for those who quit at age 55 instead of 60], VW management issued a harsh ultimatum in late October -- accept a four-day work week and a 20 percent pay cut or swallow 30,000 layoffs.

Troubled by taxes

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