Big rail strike rocks Germany

BERLIN — It’s the biggest labor struggle in years in Germany, and it’s not over yet. On Nov. 28 the locomotive engineers and other train personnel just closed down much of the railroad system for 62 hours for freight and 48 hours for passenger transportation and may do it again next week, possibly without the limited strike length used up till now.

Unless the railroad company comes up with a new offer, the workers may close down municipal train service, long-distance passenger service and freight transportation all at the same time, holding out as long as the railroad company stays stubborn.

It’s a dramatic strike, the biggest in years, but it has several complicated angles. Most complicated: a major demand of the locomotive engineers is recognition of their own union, which is a breakaway from the general transportation workers’ union and represents about three-quarters of the 20,000 engineers.

When the West German trade union movement was revived after the war, it was based on a federation of 16 industrial unions. Several have amalgamated since then, and two giants are especially strong — IG Metall for workers in the metalworking industries and one called ver.di for public service workers. Their size is part of their strength, but nearly all unions have been suffering big losses in recent years, caused by giant layoffs, outsourcing, joblessness in general and also lack of militancy by some of the unions.

The locomotive engineers accuse their industrial union Transnet of just that — lack of militancy, and especially neglect of their particular position. Driving a train is a highly skilled job and always a huge responsibility, since mistakes on freight trains and even more on passenger trains can result in countless deaths. But the engineers get wages as low as staff in the stations and elsewhere, a measly rate of about 1,500 euros a month, sometimes with workweeks of 55 hours or more.

Since Transnet was not representing them satisfactorily, they decided to go it alone and formed their own union, the GDL, which is in a strong position; without them a train can’t move. But this raises the question of splitting the labor movement and has cut into support for them to some degree.

But a high proportion of the general public has been supporting them all the same — their wages are very low by average standards, and the railroad company is very unpopular. It has used non-members and some sections of its staff who are not allowed to strike to keep part of the trains running on an emergency basis, and this has been more successful in western Germany than in the East, where most engineers are in the locomotive engineers’ union.

Of course, the company has also been counting on opposition to the strike from people whose travels and everyday commutation to work and back have been disrupted. This has certainly been having some effect but the engineers have a big strike fund and are very determined to win out, come what may.

Another angle is that German railroads, with only minor exceptions, are managed by a state-owned corporation. Theoretically, the government should be either supporting the workers or working for some acceptable compromise.

The government’s first efforts in this direction didn’t work, and it seems to be leaving the victory to whoever is strongest. But during the seven months this conflict has been simmering or going on, the minister of transportation in the Cabinet, a Social Democrat named Tiefensee, has gone along with the tough-talking head of the railroads in an attempt to privatize the industry — if not the entire railroad system, then at least all the rolling stock, leaving the government only with the tracks and stations.

Since more and more people have come to see this as a rip-off, with bad results for the workers and the public, the decision had to be postponed, but it is still on the agenda of the railroad company boss and most of the government (despite opposition by Social Democratic rank and file).

This is relevant to the strike in part because the head of the Transnet union has also supported privatization, despite what it would mean to his membership.

There are rumors this weekend that the company is beginning to modify its stubborn stance and come up with some counterproposals for negotiation. But the threat of an unlimited railroad strike is, at this writing, approaching as fast as any high-speed locomotive.