BONN, Germany (AP) _ About 5,200 Mercedes-Benz employees protested sick-pay cuts for all Germans by refusing to work Monday, one day before massive walkouts were planned at Mercedes and other major automakers.

About 4,000 early shift workers in Bremen rallied in front of Mercedes' administrative building and then staged a protest march. Some 1,200 early shift colleagues at a Duesseldorf plant also put down their tools.

The Bremen workers have been staging temporary stoppages since last Wednesday, delaying production of 2,000 vehicles. On Saturday, about 23,000 Mercedes employees refused to work.

At issue is a government austerity program, passed by parliament on Sept. 13, that lets German companies slash sickness benefits from 100 percent to 80 percent to reduce their labor costs, which are among the world's highest.

Mercedes parent Daimler-Benz, which is Germany's largest industrial conglomerate, and other major firms last week announced they were cutting sick pay by that amount as of Tuesday.

The Daimler works council, which represents the company's employees, has called on 220,000 Daimler employees at 14 plants to lay down their tools Tuesday.

About 14,900 employees of Adam Opel AG, a unit of General Motors Corp., in Bochum and thousands more at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Cologne are also planning walkouts.

Union leaders argue that companies cannot legally implement the legislation without negotiating new contracts.

Klaus Zwickel, chairman of the powerful IG Metall union, warned Monday ``any company that wants to cut sick pay will have to reckon with protests and production losses.''

German workers are out sick an average of 20 working days a year, one of the highest rates of absenteeism in the world. German companies and the government say that statistic is hurting Germany's ability to compete in the global market.