Home » Strikes for the four-day week despite a shortage of skilled workers: What’s behind them?

Strikes for the four-day week despite a shortage of skilled workers: What’s behind them?

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Strikes for the four-day week despite a shortage of skilled workers: What’s behind them?

Strike for shorter working hours at the railway – where thousands of workers are missing. The head of the train drivers’ union GDL, Claus Weselsky. Picture Alliance

Whether railway workers, steel or metal workers: many unions are currently fighting for shorter working hours. The SPD, the Left and many Greens are also demanding that people should work shorter hours.

There is already a shortage of 1.7 million workers in Germany. The consequences can be felt everywhere in everyday life. And due to demographic change, the gap is expected to widen to five million.

But: Their supporters actually want to alleviate the staff shortage with shorter working hours. Can this work? Here are the arguments and facts about Germany’s personnel dilemma.

The contrast could hardly be greater. On the one hand, there is a shortage of over a million workers in Germany. On the other hand, trade unions are fighting for a reduction in working hours and politicians are calling for a four-day week. And in surveys, many people want to work shorter hours and retire earlier. Can this work?

Let’s start with a small selection of the latest reports on staff shortages: Berlin is permanently restricting bus traffic – because hundreds of bus drivers are missing. The Expansion of wind and solar energy is progressing more slowlyn – because thousands of skilled workers are missing. Restaurants are closing and shops are opening for shorter periods of time – because they can’t find staff. Classes are canceled in schools because teachers are missing. And anyone who travels a lot by train knows this announcement: “Unfortunately, the train is canceled due to a lack of staff.

Nevertheless, the GDL railway workers’ union is striking for a reduction in working hours. IG Metall is calling for shorter working hours for steel workers and the introduction of a four-day week. They also demand the SPD and the Left. The SPD has even decided on a 25-hour week with full wage and staff compensation. And Chancellor Olaf Scholz is against longer working lives.

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The staff shortage is just beginning. Employers in Germany are currently unable to fill 1.7 million positions. Despite the recession. How will that work in an upswing? If it exists. The lack of workers has become the most important brake on growth. The foreseeable decline in the volume of work limits the growth potential, writes the Council of Experts.

The economists warn: “With the retirement of the baby boomers, an acute phase of demographic aging is currently beginning.” Labor market researchers have long since calculated the consequences: the shortage of personnel in Germany is growing – to around five million within just one generation.

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“Hit with full force”: Companies cannot fill 1.75 million positions and that is driving companies abroad

How do demands for shorter working hours fit into this? It’s worth taking a look at the unions’ arguments.

With shorter working hours to combat the staff shortage

The industrial dispute at the railway: In addition to a double-digit salary increase, the GDL union is calling for working hours to be reduced from 38.5 to 35 hours, i.e. by around ten percent, with full wage compensation. This shorter working time should then be spread over four days a week. This should make the usual shift work more attractive – and help against the staff shortage.

The railway considers this to be unrealistic. It already lacks 3,700 train drivers and thousands of other train workers. In the event of a reduction in working hours, the train would have to make noise Invoice from the German Economic Institute (IW) Hire 10,000 employees. Where should they come from?

Collective bargaining round in the steel industry: In addition to 8.5 percent more money, IG Metall is demanding a reduction in working hours from the current 35 hours with full wage compensation. The aim of IG Metall is “to introduce the four-day week, which will then become possible in many areas,” said district manager Knut Giesler. This is the only way to secure jobs – and attract new skilled workers.

A small example: What unions are demanding on a large scale has long been implemented by some companies on a small scale: they lure staff with shorter working hours. For example, Sascha Halweg in his restaurant “Blümchen” in Freiburg. “The collective agreement stipulates a weekly working time of 39 hours. “We work 31 hours a week for the same money,” he said loudly tagesschau.de. The alternative is to introduce rest days due to a lack of staff or to close completely. His simple calculation: “Which can I afford more: losing guests or paying more?”

But Halwag also makes it clear what this means for the employees: “I can get more out of my people.” This doesn’t work in other industries, such as train drivers. “Their performance will not be improved by a wage increase or shorter working hours.”

Four-day week: who does the work? Picture Alliance

The examples show three problems when attempting to alleviate staff shortages with shorter working hours.

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Vicious circle: lack of staff, pressure, working hours

The lack of personnel has already increased the workload in many industries and professions. This has been described many times for health, nursing and education professions. The ideal way out would be to hire more staff. But that is not available. The high workload therefore leads to demands to reduce working hours. This would make the staffing gap even greater. To close it, more people would have to be hired. But they don’t exist. The stress at work increases.

Four-day week: What helps individuals exacerbates the problem

For individual companies, the calculation can still work out. There is a shortage of workers at the railway, “we have to make the shift system more attractive,” argues GDL boss Weselsky. And that’s right: shorter working hours with higher salaries make the job as a train driver more attractive. Bus drivers were also easier to find for more money and less work. This also applies to the waiters in the “Blümchen” restaurant. Overall, however, this only shifts the problem. Because of shorter working hours, there are no more workers and skilled workers. They are just poached from other professions where they are then missing.

Another example: In In the public sector, the Verdi union is currently on strike for a city-state allowance to combat the staff shortage in metropolises. If the allowances attract more staff from the surrounding area to the cities, this would exacerbate the staff shortage in the surrounding area.

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From a macroeconomic perspective, two arguments still speak in favor of allowing these mechanisms to work. On the one hand, more attractive working conditions can encourage people who are not yet employed or only partially employed to work at all or more. There is still room for maneuver here, especially among women and older people. However, this leeway is not great because labor force participation in Germany is already high compared to other countries.

On the other hand, the tougher competition for personnel means that workers move to more productive companies and industries that can afford it. Less productive companies then have to give up. Public services are becoming more expensive.

So many buses, so few bus drivers. Berlin is cutting the timetable due to a lack of staff. Picture Alliance

Consequences: working hours, costs and inflation

Shorter working hours with full wage compensation generally mean higher costs. Blümchen operator Halwag is right: very few companies can compensate for the shorter working hours by getting more out of their employees. Higher costs mean higher prices. The most recent wave of inflation was driven first by a lack of materials and then by rising energy prices. Rising personnel costs have now become the biggest risk of a comeback in inflation.

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Four-day week: working hours and productivity

Studies on the connection between working hours and productivity are causing a stir. Their thesis is usually: If working hours are shortened and the number of working days reduced, employees and their companies still achieve the same, and sometimes even better, results. The employees are also happier. We have also reported on such studies several times.

What is peculiar to them is that they mostly relate to office work. They cannot be transferred to many jobs in production or services. Shorter, especially more flexible working hours can increase productivity in some professions, industries and companies with better organization. This can only be transferred to the economy as a whole to a limited extent. The experience that productivity growth in Germany is declining despite the trend towards shorter working hours also speaks against this.

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Conclusion: Strikes for shorter working hours as a harbinger of coming conflicts in the aging society

The desire is understandable: many people want to work less and for shorter periods of time. The four-day week is popular. The lack of personnel even means that their chances of achieving this on the labor market increase. Companies will offer shorter working hours to attract staff. For Germany as a whole, however, this will increase the shortage of workers.

In order to secure prosperity, productivity would have to increase dramatically. That’s not in sight. Or the work volume must remain approximately stable. To do this, either more people have to work. Or those in employment have to work more. This can be during the week, throughout the year or throughout your entire life.

By international comparison, people in Germany work very little. The Weekly working hours are relatively short. The vacation is comparatively long. The Roma Herzog Institute estimates it as follows based on data from the EU: In Germany, the lifespan spent working is the shortest in the EU, except for Luxembourg.

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An inconvenient truth: Productivity is falling in Germany – this has consequences for our prosperity and the dream of less work

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