CHANCES ARE that you never heard of Heinz-Oskar Vetter and Heinz Kluncker. Or of Otto Wolff von Amerongen and Dr. Rolf Rodenstock. All four, however, were at a black-tie White House dinner the other night as members of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's party on a state visit ot Washington.
The first two gentlemen are the heads of the key German trade unions, and the others are chairmen of German business organizations roughly comparable to our Chamber of Commerce and National Asociation of Manufactuers.
Schmidt's official entourage always includes this kind of private-sector representation a symbol of West Germany's spohisticated level of labor-management harmony and cooperation with the government.
Also in Schmidt's party was Philip Rosenthal, a member of the German Parliament and chairman of the Rosenthal China company. Rosenthal is one of Germany's most dedicated advocates of "co-ownership" of industry, to supplement the even-better-entrenched and legally enforced "codetermination."
The latter is the term for a system of fully equal representation of German workers on corporate boards that has been in effect since 1978 and was ratified last year by the German supreme court. Some degree of worker representation on corporate boards began in basic industries as far back as 1952.
Rosenthl, 64, said in an interview that codetermination and the less widespread co-ownership "are two sides of industrial democracy. Social strife is reduced, wage settlements are more sensible and you get away from this useless confrontation on nominal (money) wages."
ROSENTHAL -- Oxford-educated after escaping as a prisoner of war of the Vichy regime -- returned in 1950 to Germany and the world-famous glassware and ceramics (and now furniture) corporation his father had founded in 1879. Well before it became a matter of law, he put in a system of shared management responsibilty. He also moved early into stock ownership for his employes.
Currently, Rosenthal workers own 7.5 percent of the company's shares, and another 4 percent equivalent of the company's value in the form of a mutual fund. (Rosenthal and his family own 4 percent of the capital stock.)
The way it works at Rosenthal is that after one year's employment a new worker is given share of stock worth about 250 marks ($140) and the annual right to buy three additional shares at 108 marks ($60).
Over coffee in his room between sessions with U.S. leaders, Rosenthal said proudly that when he began the stock plan in the mid-1960s, only 16 percent of the workers bought up the extra stock despite the discount. Today 75 percent of them do so, encouraged by a special tax break to make the investment.
The results appear to be dramatic. According to Rosenthal, among the approximately 10 percent of German companies that practice co-ownership, the annual gain in worker productivity averaged 5.7 percent recently, or more than four times the gain in the rest of the German economy.In addition, the company's gifts of stock -- up to a certain level -- are tax-deductible.
As the United States looks envoiusly at West Germany's 5.5 percent inflationary rate (which they consider somewhat on the high side), is there a lesson to learn?
HISTORICALLY -- as was true at the start of the postwar period in Germany -- American business leaders and union presidents have a deep mutual suspcion of codetermination.
The union feel that if they place their own men on corporate boards, they will be co-opted by management, and the corporations worry about having union members on the board pre-empt a management function. Some see it as a step on the road to socialism.
Rosenthal says that these fears aren't borne out by German experience. He cites a case, for example, where he was able to close down an inefficient plant last year without union opposition -- something he says never would have been possible "if the workers didn't understand what the company's problems were."
In another situation, an outisde takeover was resisted when the worker representatives on the board joined the shareholder representatives in a successful effort to find an alternate investor.
Going beyond the economic justification, Rosenthal sees the German system as satisfying a critical emotional need. "There is a degree of anonymity among workers in today's society," he said. "They feel diassociated from what's going on. This way they know what the firm is dong, and the employers know what's on their minds. It gives them a feeling of being with it."
But there are a lot of differences between the U.S. and German corporate and union structures. Moreover the Bonn government doesn't shrink from economic planning. Here the word is almost verboten.
THE EFFECTIVE social compact in West Germany is enhanced by so-called "concerted action," which brings labor and management together with government officials at the beginning of each budget year to set overall wage and price goals.
"Concerted action" is not a form of mandatory controls. But both unions and management can not entirely ignore the general economic prospectus laid out by the government.
In the United States, the only example of union membership on a corporate board came about last year as a result of the Chrysler Corp. disaster. As the price of putting a chunk of union cash into the fragile auto company, UAW President Douglas Fraser got a seat on the Chrysler board.
There is, of course, a growing trend toward employe stock ownership, encouraged by new U.S. tax legislation giving an investment credit to companies that make stock available to employes.
But codetermination -- or any system that minimizes the frustrating and uselsss chasing of wages after prices and prices after wages -- is worth studying. Rosenthal suggests that a small group of business and labor leaders go to Germany to examine industrial relations first hand. Or maybe the president should take a tip from Schmidt and invite a couple of labor and business leaders to go with him on his next state visit to West Germany.
NOTE: In a column two weeks ago on auto imports, I said: "But the Japanese companies and the government in Tokyo got together years ago to shut American cars out of the Japanese market totally, and U.S. trade negotiators never have been able to pierce Japan's high tariff wall on cars." The correct reference should have been to nontariff barriers, including distribution regulations. The tariffs themselves have now been eliminated. It is also correct, as some readers pointed out, that U.S. auto manufacturers have not aggressively sought to penetrate the Japanese market by supplying, for example, a right-hand-drive car.