At a deli counter in West Berlin, a customer was trying to pay for his tub of olives and bread roll with a credit card.
“I queued at the cash point for 20 minutes and when I got to the front, it was empty,” he said apologetically.
The employees of the company responsible for refilling cash points across the German capital had gone on strike in mid-May. Berlin, the capital of one of the richest countries in Western Europe, was literally running out of money.
The cash point strike was not the only industrial action making life complicated in Germany this spring. There have been also two train strikes, a postal strike, several airline pilot’s strikes and a kindergarten workers strike.
Germany’s famed collective bargaining agreements, when union employees and management sit down and agree to wages, working hours and holiday pay has often been for the benefit of workers in heavy industry, such as Germany’s automobile sector.
At the height of the financial crisis, for example, many workers in the sector held onto their jobs when the unions agreed to a scheme, called kurzarbeit, or short work, that cut their hours in return for fewer lay-offs.
Yet, the kindergarten worker and the cash point carrier need as much protection in the workforce as the skilled auto worker. And in a country with an ageing population, the welfare of people working in the healthcare sector will only grow in importance.
It is these sectors that are now seeing the most industrial action, as service workers increasingly feel left behind in an almost two-tier labor market.
In fact, despite the view from the outside that Germany is prosperous, real wages have stagnated since after reunification, and, partly as a result of labor reforms a decade ago, the low-paid sector, particularly prevalent in the services industry, has expanded signficantly.
“Unions in Germany have, like the rest of working place, been too slow to rearrange themselves, to recognize the needs of the service industry. Unions have been intertwined with traditional industry which is employing fewer and fewer people,” Bernd Riexinger, the co-chairman of the far-left Left Party, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.