Germany: Rail strikes bring country to a standstill


Rail workers from the German train drivers union, the Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL), have repeatedly brought the country to a standstill in recent weeks, with rolling strikes against the state-owned rail company Deutsche Bahn AG.

The immediate cause of the nation-wide rail strikes — the biggest in recent German history — is a dispute over wage increases. The 34,000-strong GDL has turned down a 4.5% pay rise plus a one-off pay-out of 600 euros that was accepted by two other unions covering rail workers, and is demanding an increase of up to 30%, claiming that German train drivers are paid less than their European counterparts. The 4.5% deal would also represent a net decline in wages, which have stagnated and dropped in recent years.

At the same time, Deutsche Bahn, which was corporatised after merging with East German rail company Deutsche Reichsbahn, is expecting up to 2.4 billion euros in operating profits in 2007. Since German unification in 1990, over 400,000 rail workers have lost their jobs — 100,000 alone under the current management of corporate hardliner Hartmut Mehdorn. In July, right-wing German Chancellor Angela Merkel lent further support to Mehdorn's management when her cabinet approved plans to privatise up to 49% of Deutsche Bahn, plans that the current strike may place in jeopardy.

Reflecting this fear, as well as his arrogant management style, Mehdorn sought to crush the GDL in the lead-up to the planned privatisation rather than negotiate. While the union began a series of short strikes in July, the refusal of Deutsche Bahn to negotiate has dragged the dispute out for months. This is an attempt to have the strike ruled illegal backfired on November 2, when a Saxony state labour court ruled that the GDL had the right to extend the strike from local train services to include freight and national long-distance passenger services.

The intransigence of Deutsche Bahn has strengthened the GDL's position. As Wolfgang Schroeder, a political scientist at Kassel University, pointed out in the British Guardian on November 21, "the public has largely stuck with the strikers, something you rarely see in German disputes". This popularity remains in spite of the fact that one fifth of Germany's goods transport, and much of the work force, are dependant upon the railway and the strikes are costing an estimated 60 million euros a day despite some rail unions in west Germany, such as members of German's largest rail union Transnet, crossing picket lines. Transnet's leader, Norbert Hansen, is a close friend and ally of Mehdorn and supports his privatisation plans.

The GDL's overall approach represents a break from the traditional German-style of "pattern bargaining", which is used to produce industry-wide wage standards. As a result of decades of mergers, Germany has only a very small number of unions, covering numerous sectors, so any pay increases affects a relatively large proportion of the work force. These increases, however, are frequently quite small and the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) has even argued in the past in favour of pay cuts in order to create more employment.

A gradual drop in union membership — from 33% in 1980 to around 20% today — has compounded the unwillingness of union leaderships to fight, and strikes are a rare occurrence. The GDL is breaking from orthodoxy, not only by launching an nation-wide industrial dispute over pay and conditions, but by running a second campaign to demand union recognition and the right to negotiate separately from the other rail unions.

One of the greatest concerns for German business is that a victory for the rail workers could mean the breakdown of the current bargaining process — where the unions remain largely pliant to business demands — and the beginning of concerted industrial action. Unfortunately, this is the position of the DGB as well, which seems more concerned with "social harmony" than with fighting for workers' rights.

The fear that GDL might represent a "bad example" may already have been realised. Transnet has begun to react to the inability of Deutsche Bahn to crush the GDL and is demanding further pay increases, not wanting its members to be left behind by the GDL's possible success. According to a letter obtained on November 21 by Die Welt, the 280,000-strong union is demanding a raise of up to 15% over the next 2-3 years, threatening stoppages if Deutsche Bahn doesn't offer its members better wages.

Meanwhile, the GDL has already turned down a compromise offer of a 10% increase linked to a longer working week. Deustche Bahn produced a new offer on November 21, which the union promised to consider but refused to rule out further strikes. The GDL have threatened to continue their strikes until Christmas unless Deutsche Bahn meets their demands. As Martin Wansleben, managing director of Germany's chamber of industry and commerce, said recently, "one thing is clear: we can't hold out for ever."