EISENHUETTENSTADT, GERMANY -- As the metalworkers' strike spreads across eastern Germany, the steel workers in this city are concerned about more than just pay and hours. For strikers here the question is survival: of their jobs, their plant, their city, their way of life.
"Fifty thousand people live here," says Brigitte Thieme, a steel worker on the picket line at the gate of the big EKO Steel plant.
"If this plant closes, 25,000 will leave overnight," Ms. Thieme says, "Eisenhuettenstadt will become a city of retirees, and a dead city."
Eisenhuettenstadt was created to make iron and steel. The name in German means Iron Works City. It may die because it makes only steel.
The pickets wearing the red plastic strike tunic of the IG Metall union are acutely aware of the danger of striking at a plant many people would like to see closed.
"We're taking a big chance, but we don't have any other choice," says Hans-Joachim Domachowski, a crane operator wearing a Washington Redskins cap. He's the picket captain on the noon to 6 p.m. shift at this gate.
EKO, an acronym in German that means East Integrated Iron Works, was state-owned in the old Communist East Germany. EKO is now held by the government's Treuhand agency, which is charged with privatizing eastern enterprises.
Finding a buyer for EKO has not been easy. A deal with Krupp Steel fell through. Krupp is now closing plants in western Germany.
"This is the most modern steel works in Europe," Mr. Domachowski boasts. But EKO is also a relatively high-cost producer. Eastern European markets have shrunk. Low-cost steel from the former Soviet bloc makes the markets that remain less lucrative.
Eleven thousand steel workers were once employed at EKO. Now there are 3,500.
The strike started May 6 at selected plants in eastern Germany. Employers had reneged on a contract that would have given metalworkers in the east 80 percent of western pay and benefits this year. The workers are getting 72 percent now. They want 100 percent by 1994.
The contract was signed in 1991 when Germans were still euphoric about the reunification of the former East and West Germany and the costs were minimized.
Now there's a recession, triggered in part by the soaring price of unification. Employers say the original pact could have cost up to 26 percent per worker. Employers say they can't pay more than 9 percent.
The employers, the government and Treuhand all say this strike will harm the development in the east.
EKO steel workers say they're willing to talk about "steps" to reach parity with the west, but they want 100 percent by 1994. At EKO, 86 percent of the workers voted to strike.
By the end of this week the IG Metall strike is expected to spread among most of the rest of the metal and electronic workers and engineers in the five states of the former East Germany and Berlin.
Mr. Domachowski, who's 38 and a 20-year veteran at EKO, works a 42-hour week and earns 1,700 marks ($1,062) a month. In the west, steel workers work 38 hours a week and average 3,000 ($1,875) marks a month.
More than 100,000 workers in western Germany demonstrated yesterday to signal their solidarity with the strikers in the east. Engineers staged one-hour walkouts at west German plants. Union members from Hamburg walked Mr. Domachowski's picket line. And two steel workers from the west came to play country and western music and labor songs for the two dozen strikers at the EKO gate.
But Mr. Domachowski feels he's standing up for western workers, too.
"We are like laboratory rabbits," he says. "The employers are trying to see if they can get away with [breaking the contract] here without resistance.
"If it works, then, of course, the same thing can happen to people in the west. If we come through, people in the west will benefit."
Mr. Domachowski expresses what many east German strikers say: "We don't want to be the Sicily of Germany." He means a perpetual source of low-cost labor.
But here they face the danger of pricing themselves right out of their jobs. If the plant closes, most will head west. Many people in Eisenhuettenstadt work in the west now, returning mostly on weekends.
Eisenhuettenstadt was founded in 1951 to produce steel. There's no other industry here.
"The first socialist town of the German Democratic Republic, an interesting example of socialist town planning," says an old guide book from the Communist era.
The town has the dull uniformity of factory towns everywhere, tempered now by generous spring greenery -- trees, shrubbery and parks. It's not unpleasant, just uninspiring.
But people came here in the days of the GDR more for the apartments guaranteed married couples than for the work. The GDR had a severe and chronic housing shortage for all of its 40 years of existence.
Mr. Domachowski likes the town. His parents brought him over as a child and he grew up here. His wife is a nurse and they have two children, a little girl with lots of furry animals and a son who likes American football, especially the Miami Dolphins.
They live in a slightly cramped three-bedroom apartment that is surprisingly light and airy. Mr. Domachowski did the work that makes it livable, and he keeps it in good repair.
He pays 600 marks ($375) rent to the city, out of his 1,700 mark salary. That's the same as rent in the west. He paid 54 marks before the fall of the Wall.
"They promised us so much since the Wall came down, and nothing has come," Mr. Domachowski complains.
"The Bundeschancellor [Helmut Kohl] said nobody in the east would have it worse than in the west. But now in the east we have 3 million without work. In the west there are 1.4 million.
"You can now say your opinion," he says. "You can think for yourself. That's something you could never do before. You feel better about yourself.
"And we are putting [those rights] to good use here today."