Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Worker's Paradise? German Labor Demands for More Pay and Less Work

The German news today brought reports of an upcoming doctor's strike.  And this is not the first.  It seems like German doctors strike all the time.  This speaks to two key differences with the U.S. system.  First, most German doctors are employees of hospitals and clinics, with a set salary.  Several of my friends in healthcare say that the U.S. will inevitably move toward this model.  What would be harder for U.S. physicians to swallow would be German salaries, in the 48,000 - 60,000 Euro range (and that before high taxes).  It also reflects Germany's more powerful organized labor (even of professionals) and a willingness to agitate for distributional issues.

VW recently announced that its corporate Blackberry server will stop sending message to employee's devices 30 minutes after their work day ends and will not begin again until 30 minutes before the next shift.  This results from an agreement reached with VW's powerful work council (see the Financial Times article).  As with all large German companies, VW's works council holds just under half of the corporate board's seats.  From an American perspective, this is incredible, almost unthinkable.  But under the German model of "co-determination" that treats employees as stakeholders alongside stockholders, it works.  And as the VW action shows, workers are wary of capital's gains through increased productivity allowed by 24/7 accessibility.  They are willing to fight not only for wages, but also for quality of life, and, indeed, independence and dignity, to not be seduced into being at another's beck and call.   

BMW, in this same spirit of compromise between capital and labor, made it a policy a couple of years ago that executive wages should not exceed 25 times the company's average wage.  That is still generous by continental standards (although the U.S. is in an all together different league, with Russia and India and China, the USRICs), but is a crucial symbol of the value placed on solidarity.

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