Services union Ver.di managed to halt air traffic at six German airports on Wednesday as it used strike action to push for more pay for the 2.1 million public sector workers it represents.
The industrial action, which has affected tens of thousands of passengers, is designed to pile the pressure on employers ahead of the next round of talks that commences on Thursday.
However, airlines are being caught in the crossfire. Carriers, including Lufthansa and Air Berlin, were forced to cancel hundreds of flights due to the strikes by airport ground staff, including security guards and firefighters.
Following warning strikes on Tuesday by workers in daycare centers, municipal administrations, swimming pools and trash collection services, Ver.di is now taking aim at Munich, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Cologne/Bonn, Dortmund and Hanover airports. Munich Airport, which is seeing a full-day walkout, said around 700 of its scheduled 1,100 takeoffs and landings had been canceled.
While Ver.di had announced the strikes last week, the full extent of the planned action only became clear on Tuesday.
Ver.di and the Civil Service Association are demanding a 6-percent pay increase for the more than 2.1 million federal and local public sector employees. The employers have proposed a 3-percent increase in pay rates for two years, to be implemented in two stages. German municipalities estimate the costs would amount to €2.7 billion, or $3.05 billion, while the federal government anticipates it would cost it at least €400 million.
“It is important to put a stop to excessive labor disputes that come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters.”
In an effort to apply pressure ahead of Thursday’s next round of talks, the union has called upon its members to strike in ground handling services, airport fire departments, check-in, security checkpoints and maintenance. Even if only the firefighters do not report for duty, all aircraft will have to be grounded.
Lufthansa alone has had to cancel 895 flights, forcing 87,000 passengers to abandon their travel plans or switch to trains. The airline is offering transfers to passengers booked on domestic German flights. The strike will have a serious impact similar to that of the walkout by cabin personnel last fall and winter. Air Berlin is also preparing its passengers for substantial delays.
The work stoppage is painful for both airlines. Last year’s strike by its cabin personnel cost Lufthansa a nine-figure sum, which is why the airline is pleased that talks with flight attendant union Ufo and – after a minor clash a few days ago – with the Cockpit pilots’ union are back on track and there is currently no talk of strikes. Air Berlin, for its part, is in serious economic trouble and can use every cent of income.
Neither airline can do anything to prevent the walkouts at this point, because the striking employees are public sector and not airline employees. Like their passengers, Lufthansa and Air Berlin are not directly involved, but rather bystanders and victims. “Once again, our passengers are affected by a labor dispute in which Lufthansa is not even a party to the wage negotiations,” said personnel chief Bettina Volkens.
Wage experts were also critical of the escalation. “The Federal Labor Court is pretty generous in allowing warning strikes,” said Bonn labor law expert Gregor Thüsing, “partly because it is confidant that the unions will use them in a sensible way.” In other words, Ver.di and other unions should keep a sense of proportion.
Germany had seen a spike in strikes in recent years, particularly by smaller labor unions, such as those representing train drivers and pilots. This led to a new law limiting the ability of unions only representing a minority of workers from calling industrial action, the Unitary Pay-Scale Law, which was passed in July 2015.
“The strike at airports is an example of how a collective bargaining system can become so fragmented that it destroys itself,” explained Hagen Lesch of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW). Different unions serve pilots, cabin personnel, ground service personnel and air-traffic controllers, and they can strike on a rotating basis or simultaneously.
This makes the Unitary Pay-Scale Law ineffective. It only becomes effective if two unions compete for the same group of employees in one company. This would be the case, for example, if Cockpit decided to organize flight attendants, in addition to pilots.
“I hope that this signal will be understood and that we will come to an agreement.”
This has prompted some members of Germany’s coalition government to call for lawmakers to intervene. “It is important to put a stop to excessive labor disputes that come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters,” said Joachim Pfeiffer, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union and economic policy spokesman for the party’s parliamentary group.
In the debate over the Unitary Pay-Scale Law, said Mr. Pfeiffer, the economic wing of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, had called for new rules to restrict striking in key public-service sectors, such as aviation and rail services. But the conservatives failed to reach an agreement with their coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats at the time. “We can now see how important our proposals were,” Mr. Pfeiffer added.
The head of Ver.di, Frank Bsirske, defended this week’s strike action. Speaking to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he said: “I hope that this signal will be understood and that we will come to an agreement at the third round (of talks) on Thursday and Friday.”
Jens Koenen is bureau chief in Frankfurt and heads Handelsblatt’s coverage of the aviation industry. Frank Specht covers labor relations. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this piece. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org