Germany expected to grind to a halt during country’s longest train strike

Source: Reuters; The Guardian; The Economist
Date: 23rd January 2023

The strike will start at 2 am on the 24th of January (Wednesday) – German time for passenger trains and on the 23rd of January (Tuesday) evening for freight. It is taking place amid tensions and scenes of unrest across the country.

GDL union, which has 40,000 members, prepares for industrial action in a dispute over pay and hours.

Much of Germany is expected to grind to a halt on Wednesday when train drivers begin a six-day strike – the longest industrial action in the national railway’s history.

Farmers supported by transport companies have blocked thoroughfares in towns and cities with their tractors, ostensibly over government proposals to phase out subsidies on fuel, while an estimated 1 million people have taken to the streets to campaign against the far right after revelations members of the AfD discussed plans for the mass expulsion of foreigners and German passport holders with a migrant background.

The GDL trade union, which includes train drivers and other rail workers, has said it was forced into the strike, which is set to continue until 2 pm on Monday, after bosses at Deutsche Bahn (DB), the national rail operator, “tried to trick” the workers over their demands for improved pay and conditions.

DB has accused GDL, which has about 40,000 members, of “holding the country hostage”, insisting its demands would increase the company’s wage bill by 50%.

Neither side in the railway dispute has sat together around a negotiating table since November and the chancellor has said it would “not be appropriate” for him to be involved in labour disputes when called on to arbitrate.

But the deadlock in talks has only deepened disgruntlement at Germany’s leadership, on top of a cost of living crisis that critics have said is fuelling the rise of the AfD as key regional elections loom in the autumn.

Industry bosses have estimated that the strike will cost Europe’s biggest economy, which recently fell into recession, about €100m (£85m) a day and warned of the reputational damage the strike would do to German business. The industry is already under strain over supply chain issues linked to the Red Sea attacks on shipping, with some companies having had to reduce production.

Six out of 10 of Europe’s freight corridors go through Germany, so a considerable knock-on effect across mainland Europe is also inevitable, not to mention the effect on continental train connections.

Earlier this month DB failed in its attempts to get a court to halt the strikes.

GDL is calling for a reduction in employees’ working week from 38 to 35 hours with no drop in pay. It also wants an extra €550 a month for workers plus an inflation compensation package to be renegotiated after 12 months.

DB has offered workers an average 4.8% pay increase starting from August, and an additional 5% from spring 2025. An inflation compensation package would be paid for a fixed period of 32 months.

It said that from 2026, employees would have the chance to reduce working time from the average 38 hours a week to 37, with extra pay for those who stuck to their current working week. DB has said further cuts in working time would exacerbate an already extremely burdensome worker shortage.

Environmentalist groups have expressed concern about the impact of the strike on CO2 emissions as well as consumers’ long-term trust in rail travel. Domestic flight routes by the national carrier Lufthansa have been increased to plug the gap, and car hire companies have reported a massive increase in bookings as people look for alternative ways to travel.

Germans who cannot work from home are legally obliged to make their alternative travel arrangements.

DB is under considerable strain because of a sustained poor record on punctuality and reliability due to what it puts down to long-term underfunding in infrastructure and a labour shortage.

The chair of MIT, the business wing of the conservative CDU/CSU parties, has called for changes to laws governing strikes in areas of critical infrastructure.

“Strikes are a part of free collective bargaining, and an expression of democracy, but in this case, it is not only affecting railway employees, but millions of people from commuters to travellers, businesses, the economy, here and elsewhere in Europe,” she told the broadcaster.

“We need industrial action laws like other countries have to ensure that critical infrastructure isn’t threatened in this way.”

DB has an unusual ownership structure: it was privatised in the 1990s after German reunification but remains in government hands, with the state as its sole shareholder. The head of GDL, who is on the verge of retirement, said the government’s decision to privatise was to blame for a lot of its current woes.

He said he was sorry for every individual affected by the strike: “But we made our announcements 48 hours in advance, giving people the opportunity to make alternative arrangements,” he said.

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