At 8:30 a.m. last Monday a time when most Germans were still digesting the news that their national elections the previous day had ended in stalemate a group of about 50 car mechanics clutching banners staged a 2-hr. protest on the grounds of an Iveco truck plant in Hamburg. Their gripe: local auto dealers were trying to force them to work an additional 2 hr., 30 min. per month. The work stoppage received almost no attention locally, let alone nationally. Yet it speaks volumes about the shifting nature of attitudes toward work in Germany, and throughout Europe.
Until quite recently, the notion that any German company would try to make its work force stay longer on the job would have run into a storm of protest. Germany, after all, was one of the first European nations to move to a 35-hour week two decades ago. But in this case, the Hamburg mechanics didn't put down their tools to protest longer hours. Indeed, they are even offering to increase the length of their workweek under certain circumstances. What raised their ire was the idea of doing so for no extra money. "Being flexible about working hours is not the problem," says Friedhelm Ahrens, an official of the IG Metall metalworkers' union in Hamburg, which organized the protest. "We're just not ready to work without pay."
The Hamburg demo is just one sign that European attitudes about work are shifting. With companies from Siemens to Volkswagen threatening to cut thousands of jobs unless Germans are more productive, unions are agreeing to far more flexible labor practices. One, the huge construction union IG Bau, even agreed this summer to shift back to a 40-hour week without any pay increase.
Regardless of who ends up as Germany's next Chancellor, a much harder-nosed attitude to labor markets is taking hold. Employers, politicians and chunks of the electorate are realizing that high unemployment rates, stagnant growth and serious public deficits are no longer sustainable. The new mantra: If you don't work, you need to start; if you do, you can expect to work harder and longer for no more pay and far less security.
Other hallowed traditions apart from the shorter workweek are also under attack across the Continent. Lifelong job security, a staple of the postwar era, is rapidly making way for short-term contracts with far less generous benefits than full-timers enjoy. Between 12-15% of workers in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are currently employed on short-term contracts, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. That's more than double the proportion in Britain, where it's easier to dismiss staffers. In France, which has traditionally coddled its workers more than most, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin last month put in place a new two-year contract that makes it cheap and easy for firms to fire employees within that period.
State-subsidized early retirement a policy promoted aggressively by several European governments in the 1990s as a way to reduce unemployment has been discredited as expensive and ineffective. And in countries from Denmark to Ireland, Europe's unemployed, especially unemployed youngsters, are hearing a stark new message: if you don't take a job or accept training, you'll end up like Peter Jensen.
The son of a single mother, Jensen grew up in the Danish town of Elsinore. When he left school at the age of 17, he had no intention of doing much of anything. "I had no plans, no ambitions," Jensen says. But the Danish government no longer allows people like him to coast. His social caseworker enrolled Jensen in job-training placement schemes and courses. Every time he dropped out of one, he was put in another. If he didn't show up, he didn't get his benefits. One spell Jensen remembers vividly: he had to turn up every morning at an Elsinore job center to be given a series of mundane assignments that ranged from sweeping leaves to washing the gates of public institutions. "It was almost as if one day I had to move a pile of boxes from one place to another and the next day move them back again," Jensen says. "I often felt humiliated."
It was a tough lesson but it worked. For the past 20 months Jensen, now 24, has been in a full-time job at an anti-rust treatment shop. He found the job himself, and the state subsidized his new employer for the first six months. He hopes it will be a permanent position, but even if it isn't, something fundamental has changed: Jensen swears he'll never be unemployed again. "It's like emerging into the sunlight from a slough," he says.