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Train drivers threaten to derail the Merkel miracle

by Open-Publishing - Tuesday 7 August 2007

Edito Un/Employment Trade unions Strikes Europe Transports

By Roger Boyes in Berlin

Germans faced the prospect of summer holiday chaos yesterday as train drivers voted for an unlimited nationwide strike. It seems set to be the worst rail strike in 15 years and, along with a threat of industrial action by airline pilots, could bring the country to a standstill.

The timing is bad news for Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, who had hoped to crown Germany’s economic recovery with the successful privatisation of Deutsche Bahn, the German rail service. This would not only fill government coffers, it is also intended to cement her reputation as an economic moderniser in the run-up to the 2009 general election.

This left the train drivers’ union, GDL, unmoved yesterday, with 95.8 per cent of delegates voting to strike from tomorrow. The first target will be goods trains but unless Deutsche Bahn comes up with an offer, the train drivers will paralyse passenger traffic by the weekend — a time when Germans in some regions are setting out on their summer holidays and others are coming home.

The drivers’ immediate aim is to win a 31 per cent wage rise. A 40-year-old German train driver with two children earns about €1,800 (£1,200) a month, compared with €2,420 in The Netherlands, €3,140 in Spain, €2,770 in France and €4,800 in Switzerland.

“We’re already losing millions in revenue because of illegal stoppages,” said a plainly furious Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of Deutsche Bahn who has made it his life’s work to privatise the company.

The wage claim, he said, was “madness” and he threatened disciplinary measures against drivers if they threatened the safety of the rail service. “Any train driver behaving irresponsibly will be suspended immediately.”

This fighting talk was met in kind by the union leaders. “We will not be intimidated by Mehdorn,” said Man-fred Schell, head of GDL. “We are obviously not going to endanger passenger safety — in the case of a strike the driver will ferry the train into the nearest station rather than abandon it somewhere in the wilderness.”

Industrial relations, normally calm and consensual in Germany, are breaking down, partly because of the country’s strong growth. There is a widespread feeling in the German trade union movement that the time has come to squeeze higher salaries out of employers. The so-called Merkel miracle could thus soon start to evaporate.

“A rail strike will damage the economy and the standing of Germany in the world,” Michael Glos, the Economics Minister, said. First though, the strike could well derail the privatisation of Deutsche Bahn. The privatisation law is about to be presented in the second chamber of the German parliament and some powerful voices are expressing reservations about the way in which the country’s 35,000km (21,700 miles) of railtrack are to be handled.

Mr Mehdorn insists that the railtrack should stay part of the privatised concern, but critics from across the political spectrum argue that Germany must learn the lesson of what is widely seen as the bungled British privatisation of the rail system: that the track should stay in government hands or Deutsche Bahn will be able to slant competition in its favour.

The new law fudges the issue — effectively incorporating it as part of the privatised concern while giving the Government legal supervision for 15 years — and politicians are threatening a rebellion.

Having failed to get his way on the railtrack, Mr Mehdorn — denounced in the tabloid press as a “fathead” — is determined to make a stand on wages. He insists that there should be a comprehensive (and modest) settlement for all 400,000 rail workers, not just train drivers, or future bidders will be scared away from investing in Germany. The unions, by contrast, believe that the run-up to privatisation is exactly the moment to put in an ambitious wage claim.

Hitting the buffers

- Deutsche Bahn carried more than 119 million people on its long-distance rail services during 2005

- Last year Deutsche Bahn’s net income tripled to €1.7 billion (£1.1 billion) as freight and passenger demand rose with the World Cup

- The GDL union can strike only with the approval of 75 per cent of its 12,000 members

- Its strike would be the first unlimited shutdown of Germany’s widely used rail network in 15 years

- A nationwide strike would stop approximately 28,000 passenger trains and 4,780 cargo trains every day

- About 170 international rail routes to, from or through Germany would also be forced to close

- The Government has already reached agreement with two other rail trade unions representing 134,000 workers which the GDL refuses to accept

- Its aim of raising €4 million€5 million by floating a third of privatised Deutsche Bahn next year will be difficult if the company appears paralysed by poor industrial relations

Sources: RMT Bristol; www.railway-technology.com ;