Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Germany: Record rail strike brings country to a halt

Striking GDL workers
On May 5, thousands of German train drivers and railway workers embarked on a week-long strike, the longest rail strike in the country’s post-war history, after fraught industrial negotiations broke down again.

Approximately two thirds of Germany’s long distance trains and a third of regional trains have been cancelled, with trains in the eastern region around Halle, Leipzig, and Dresden reduced to around 15 percent of services.

Some subway systems were also affected, including those in Hamburg and Berlin.

Deutsche Bahn accounts for about a fifth of Germany's freight transport – around 1 million tonnes per day – as well as moving 5.5 million passengers daily.

During earlier railway strikes, economists from the Federation of German Industries estimated that extended train strikes could cost Germany's economy "up to 100 million euros per day", and German industry has, predictably, condemned the strike.

In November last year, train drivers announced an until-then-unprecedented four-day strike, but then shortened it to three days, the longest since a GDL-led national strike in 2007.

In fact, the latest industrial action is the eighth in just ten months of contentious bargaining between the Gewerkschwaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL) union, which represents around 20,000 drivers, switch-yard engineers and conductors, and the state owned railway corporation, Deutsche Bahn.

The GDL is demanding a 5 percent pay increase, a 50-hour limit on annual overtime and a reduction in the working week from 39 to 37 hours. The point of contention, however, is a demand by the GDL to independently represent and bargain for around 17,000 train workers in other positions such as train stewards.

Deutsche Bahn, which has approximately 200,000 employees in Germany, has offered train drivers a staggered 4.7 percent wage increase plus a one-off payment of 1,000 euros – an offer reminiscent of one it made during bargaining in 2007 – but has refused to allow the GDL to freely negotiate on behalf of other rail workers.

Deutsche Bahn’s has argued that if GDL is to represent other Deutsche Bahn employees, it would have to accept the same pay deals agreed to with the other railway union, the Eisenbahn- und Verkehrsgewerkschaft (EVG), which represents about 213,000 rail workers.

GDL has rejected Deutsche Bahn’s offer, and has also refused an offer of arbitration, arguing that the workplace rights it is seeking are enshrined in law and are not up for negotiation.

The rail strike is only the latest in a growing wave of industrial action building in Germany.

On May 2, German postal workers held another strike as part of their ongoing dispute with Deutsche Post, which plans to expand parcel delivery services using a lower pay scale than that applied to regular postal workers.

Deutsche Post management and the representatives of the Ver.di union are scheduled to hold further talks on 8-9 May.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, bank ATMs are running out cash, as a dispute between the Ver.di union and a local security has brought an end to cash deliveries in the city.

In March, pilots for Germany's flagship carrier, Lufthansa, went on a four day strike over working conditions, leading to 220,000 flight cancellations. That action followed a two-day strike in February by pilots for Lufthansa’s budget subsidiary Germanwings.

While the GDL has rejected the Deutsche Bahn latest offer, and the rail corporation is seeking to resolve the stand-off by pursuing third-party arbitration, a piece of legislation is making its way through the Bundestag (German parliament) that would restrict workplace bargaining and industrial rights to the largest union in a workplace alone.

This legislation which is due to come into effect in July is in part a reaction to a 2010 ruling in Germany’s top labour court that it was legal for companies to negotiate with more than one union.

It is also a reaction to rising industrial action across Germany. In recent years industrial action in Germany has also increased dramatically, with days lost to industrial action increasing from only 25,000 in 2010 to nearly 155,000 in 2014.

Germany could see even more industrial unrest in coming months, as the agreements for over 6.5 million workers expired earlier this year. Low unemployment levels and labor shortages in some industries have strengthened the bargaining position of workers, and more aggressive bargaining tactics from unions have already begun to achieve results.

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