ZWICKAU, Germany (AP) _ Striking workers in former communist east Germany crippled production at a Volkswagen car plant Monday, joining thousands of others in their demand for shorter hours _ even as the nation teeters on the brink of recession.

About 11,400 workers answered the strike call, labor union IG Metall said Monday, the first full day of a campaign aimed at cutting the work week for 320,000 factory employees in eastern Germany from 38 hours to 35 _ the same as in the more affluent west.

At VW's plant in Zwickau, 120 miles south of Berlin, about 2,500 workers wearing red vests and caps with slogans such as ``The Time Has Come'' and the number 35 halted the daily output of some 1,100 sedans.

IG Metall said the autos _ many destined for export to the United States _ would not roll off the production line again before Friday.

``At the moment, I work the equivalent of a month longer than my colleagues in the west,'' said Heiko Wellner, an assembly line worker listening to speeches by union leaders at the factory. ``Maybe there'll be more jobs if we all work a bit less.''

With the German economy in its third year of stagnation, the government has joined employers in decrying the strike. Relations between the unions and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left government already have been bruised by plans to ease hiring-and-firing restrictions and cut jobless benefits.

``Thirteen years after German unification, we need further steps to realize equal work and income conditions for all of Germany,'' IG Metall head Klaus Zwickel told strikers.

Easterners have worked longer hours for the same base pay since German unification in 1990. Some experts say that flexibility is the ex-communist region's main hope of attracting investment and fighting unemployment that stands near 19 percent _ more than twice the level in western Germany.

But unions say manufacturers are faring well thanks to productivity gains, and that hard-pressed firms could phase in the shorter hours over years.

In the state of Saxony, where the strikes are focused, ``all the signs are that growth and productivity are increasing,'' said Hasso Duvel, an IG Metall state official. ``So there's nothing economically crazy about striking now.''

IG Metall contends that cutting hours would create up to 15,000 jobs by spreading work among more employees. Employers say a shorter week won't work if labor remains a third less productive in the east, and forecast that more than 20,000 jobs could be lost.

``What is fair is whatever helps us move Germany forward,'' Michael Rogowski, the head of the main German industry federation said on Deutschlandfunk radio.

``Exercising fairness for east Germany currently means giving priority to the securing and creation of jobs. An industrial dispute could do the opposite,'' Labor and Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement was quoted in the Berliner Zeitung daily Saturday.

Union members voted in favor of broader strike action last week, after brief stoppages at companies such as DaimlerChrysler, VW and railcar maker Bombardier. A full-fledged strike campaign typically means walkouts targeting individual companies, not an industrywide shutdown.

The latest strike began late Sunday with 120 night workers at a VW engine plant in Chemnitz after union members voted last week to step up their protests.

The VSME employers organization in Saxony said Monday it would challenge the legality of the ballot because less than 10 percent of the state's manufacturing workers had voted.

Meanwhile, France braced for another round of public sector strikes expected to disrupt air traffic Tuesday and take a toll on subway and train services in the latest confrontation between unions and the government over pension reform.

Major European airlines canceled flights to try to limit the damage from a planned walkout by air traffic controllers.