BERLIN -- German construction workers launched their first major strike Monday in more than 50 years, following members of the country's main manufacturing union in walking out earlier this year to back up demands for higher wages.
The IG BAU union said at least 8,000 workers stayed off the job at 400 sites in the capital, Berlin, as well as the northern city of Hamburg and the industrial Ruhr Valley area in the west in strikes that some fear could hurt an already sagging German economy.
The walkouts came after a strike ballot last week produced a 98.63 percent vote in favor of industrial action.
"We're going to step up the strikes in the next few days," union leader Klaus Wiesehuegel promised at a rally in front of Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate.
"There must be a better offer from the employers, and at the moment I don't see one," he told reporters.
About 100 union members, many waving red union flags and wearing white overalls emblazoned with the words "We're On Strike," gathered near the gate, itself surrounded by building sites. Some 500 workers demonstrated at a construction site in Hamburg.
The strike is the first large-scale action in the construction industry since 1949, and employers have argued that a strike is irresponsible while the sector remains mired in a slump. Germany's second-biggest construction firm, Philipp Holzmann AG, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Pushing for 4.5 percent
Union officials are pushing for a 4.5 percent annual increase for Germany's 950,000 construction workers and for wages in the economically depressed east to be brought up to levels in the west.
A construction worker in west Germany makes an average hourly base wage of $12.64. In the formerly communist east the average hourly wage is $9.22.
Employers have offered increases of 3 percent for the period from September 2002 until March 2003 and of 2.1 percent for the following 12 months.
Last month, Germany's biggest factory workers union, IG Metall, secured a 4 percent wage increase for the coming year for workers in the automotive, engineering and electronics industries after staging brief strikes at companies including DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, on the defensive over the sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment ahead of Sept. 22 elections, has urged the parties in the construction industry to settle their difference. Economists and business leaders warn that a prolonged dispute or excessive pay award could hold back a hoped-for recovery in the economy.