Rail passengers up and down Germany are being held hostage in a further round of strikes by a small trade union for train drivers, which announced a ninth round of industrial action to start later today.
Freight trains of Germany’s main rail-road firm, Deutsche Bahn, will stop as of 3 pm Tuesday, and passenger trains from early Wednesday morning, in an unprecedented strike for which no end has been announced.
The industrial action comes on the tail of a recent six-day strike – the longest in the history of the German rail service – which ended on May 10. Train driver’s union GDL said only that it would give 48 hours’ notice of when the latest strike, the ninth since September 2014, would end.
“This has to be resolved at some point. The GDL should think long and hard about whether to hold a strike during the upcoming holiday weekend.”
This lack of clarity and the short-notice of the strike, which was announced only on Monday, makes it more difficult for Deutsche Bahn to plan coverage during the industrial action to maintain a minimal service.
GDL has also timed the industrial action to maximize the discomfort for rail travelers as the holiday season begins.
But for Germany’s rail travelers, the empty railway platforms and boards listing cancelled trains are becoming all too familiar.
The dispute between GDL, the smaller of two trade unions representing rail workers, and Deutsche Bahn has reached a new height. GDL had just 34,000 members in 2014, mostly locomotive drivers, but wants to represent 17,000 rail workers from other occupational groups, including on-board staff and train conductors. This was one of the causes of the nearly year-long series of strikes, along with a call for a shorter working week.
Alongside commuters and holiday-makers, politicians have also expressed frustration about the continuing deadlock in the labor dispute.
“This has to be resolved at some point. The GDL should think long and hard about whether to hold a strike during the upcoming holiday weekend,” said Ulrich Lange, parliamentary transport spokesman for the Christian Democrats, the ruling party in Germany’s governing coalition.
“It’s going to affect the wrong people, namely the many people in Germany who want to go on trips during the three-day weekend. Both parties involved in this dispute should get moving to resolve the collective bargaining issue – without any political maneuverings.”
Last weekend, 20 hours of talks between the GDL and Deutsche Bahn management failed to resolve the issues.
In order to maintain the latest, record-breaking strike, the head of the train drivers’ union GDL has promised rail drivers €100, or $111 per day for refusing to go to work, up from €75 per day. The GDL head Claus Weselsky assured the members of the union that they should not fear it will run out of money.
However it emerged on Tuesday that no application had been submitted by the GDL for strike pay support for workers with fixed contracts belonging to the German Association of Civil Servants as is required by regulations. The association pays member trade unions a sum per worker and per day that strikes are held.
Ulrich Weber, the personnel chief at Deutsche Bahn, said the renewed call to strike was irresponsible, “senseless and unnecessary.”
Deutsche Bahn seeks to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for each job grouping with only one trade union and to avoid parallel agreements with each of the trade unions, which would lead to workers doing the same jobs under differing conditions.
Mr. Weber said that the two parties had made significant progress during the weekend’s lengthy talks, both agreeing that drivers should be paid the same amount throughout the company. He said that the GDL had rejected the proposed agreement to equalize pay “for political reasons.”
So far it seems that the only real talks underway are between the rail service and the second trade union representing rail workers, the EVG. This larger union represents all types of rail workers and in late 2013 had 209,000 members. The EVG is also in dispute with Deutsche Bahn over wages.
Alexander Kirchner, the chairman of EVG, told Handelsblatt: “We have negotiated most of the collective bargaining agreement but on some issues, we’re still far from an agreement.”
Deutsche Bahn representatives hope to resolve the dispute with EVG on Thursday.
Following the recent talks, Mr. Weber said that mediation was needed. “We need someone to arbitrate over all these issues from structure to working hours to money,” he said. GDL had rejected the mediator proposed, he said.
A consultation over the legal issues at the heart of the dispute is planned for Tuesday when Mr. Weber will meet with Klaus Bepler, a former federal labor judge. Mr. Bepler had presided over a court case in 2010 which had ruled against the principle of a single workplace being represented by a single trade union, with a single collective bargaining agreement.
Mr. Weselsky, the head of GDL, based his call for different contracts for the same groups of workers within a company upon this legal decision.
Mr. Weber said he was losing faith in Mr. Weselsky’s willingness to reach a compromise.
The existence of a second, smaller trade union representing a highly specialized group of workers is not unusual in Germany. Pilots also have their own separate trade union and have also held repeated strikes over the last year over their pension packages.
The German government is considering a law to limit the number of trade unions to one negotiating partner per company.
The ongoing rail strikes are costing millions of euros per day but so far they have not had a significant impact on Europe’s largest economy. Figures published last Wednesday by the Federal Statistical Office showed growth in Germany for the first quarter of 2015 at 0.3 percent, less than the 0.6 percent growth expected, and half the level of the same period one year previously. This has been attributed to lower exports, the weak euro and the low price of oil.
But the strikes, which started last year, are having an impact on business at Deutsche Bahn.
For 2014, Germany’s rail provider announced revenues of €39.7 billion, up €601 million, or 1.5 percent, on the year before. Deutsche Bahn’s adjusted EBIT, of €2.1 billion, was 5.7 percent less than the previous year, which the company said was due to strikes and storms.
While Deutsche Bahn reported that its passenger numbers are reported to be rising, the deregulated bus market means more and more travelers in Germany have more and cheaper options to get around.
This week, in view of the continued strikes, many holidaymakers are re-jigging their plans and taking to the roads by bus.
“The strikes are bad news for travelers, of course, but they’re good news for us,” said Bettina Knauer, spokesperson for MeinFernBus Flixbus, one of Germany’s leading long-range bus companies.
Ms. Knauer said the strikes had given the bus company a chance to win new customers who were taking the bus for the first time – and hopefully would stay. “It’s a good chance for us to show we’re a reliable provider,” she said. During the repeated rail strikes, the company had gained experience of adding new buses to its network to cope with the greater number of travelers.
Thanks to the strikes, Ms. Knauer said, “for the holiday weekend we’re expecting a higher number of passengers and four times as many bookings as usual.”
Frank Specht covers the German labor market and trade unions for Handelsblatt, Dieter Fockenbrock is Handelsblatt’s chief correspondent for the companies and markets desk. Jens Koenen leads Handelsblatt’s coverage of the aviation and IT industry and is bureau chief of the Frankfurt office. Allison Williams contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org