Germany has long held out against introducing a nationwide minimum wage, and over the weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized her rejection of the idea. But it may be the price she has to pay to build the stable government she has promised voters. Ms. Merkel’s conservatives met Monday for a second round of preliminary talks with the Social Democrats, the center-left party that is demanding a base wage of 8.50 euros an hour, or $11.55, for workers across Germany, Europe’s largest economy. The issue emerged as a central sticking point the two sides must overcome if they are to proceed to the next step of formally trying to build a coalition. The chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union, along with its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union, emerged from a Sept. 22 parliamentary election as the clear winners. But the parties fell five seats short of a majority that would have allowed them to govern alone. Their previous partner in government, the pro-business Free Democrats, was ousted from Parliament, leaving Ms. Merkel searching for a new partner. Ms. Merkel’s conservatives have held an initial round of discussions with the Social Democrats, as well as the Greens. Both meetings concluded with a decision to meet again to sound out whether there are enough common points to open formal negotiations over a coalition that would form the next government.
“Up to now, discussions have only skimmed the surface; today is the first day we dig deeper,” Andrea Nahles, general secretary for the Social Democrats, said before Monday’s meeting. “It is about whether coalition talks are even realistic.”
Over the weekend Ms. Nahles insisted that without an agreement to introduce a minimum wage, her party would not be interested in forming a government with the conservatives. Germany is one of the few European countries to lack a legal minimum wage, which critics charge has allowed employers to exploit workers and contributed to a rise in income inequality since cuts to minimum benefits were introduced in 2005.
Traditionally, industry leaders have negotiated wages with trade unions, setting a minimum wage for individual branches, like chemical, construction or metal workers. Ms. Merkel praised that strategy as a cornerstone of Germany’s cherished social market economy in her regular weekend podcast.
“In recent years, the German government has introduced a sector-specific minimum wage for more than four million workers,” Ms. Merkel said.
Yet that number is roughly half of the 7.5 million Germans the Social Democrats and leading unions say earned less than the guaranteed $11.55 hourly base wage that the center-left party is seeking for workers in both the country’s former eastern states and the more affluent west.