A flight attendant strike against Germany's flagship airline Lufthansa has left passengers stranded all across Europe. The question now is: How will the trade union dispute be resolved?
Until recently, the Independent Flight Attendant Organization (UFO) was rather unknown; that is, until their first strike put them on the map. For eight hours on Friday UFO enforced a work stoppage at Frankfurt airport, Germany's most important aviation hub. As a result, all over Europe hundreds of flights were canceled and thousands of passengers stranded, with some having to spend the night in airport lounges. As Lufthansa announced that the strike would cost it millions of euros, the labor union was already announcing further industrial action.
The potential threat of disruptions by airline crews is enormous. "Without flight attendants a plane is not allowed to take off, just like a plane cannot fly without a pilot," Hagen Lesch from the Cologne Institute for Economics told DW. Pilots, air traffic controllers, and now flight attendants have managed, as a relatively small group, to disrupt Frankfurt flight operations. But, as long as these strikes are carried out as part of the collective bargaining process they are legal, said Lesch.
Collective bargaining is sacred
In Germany, contract negotiations are solely the domain of the opposing parties involved in the dispute, such as employees and employers' representatives. The two sides can also choose the way they protest, such as striking, or lockouts and the state and government are not allowed to interfere. Collective bargaining is highly valued in Germany. "This is a constitutionally guaranteed, fundamental right and any kind of intervention immediately causes a legal action," says wage-expert Lesch.
However, the negotiation framework has become more confusing. There used to be contract unity, notes Lesch. That meant that per company there was only one contract that covered all employees. But ever since the first airline pilot contract in 2001, this principle has been watered down. A division of the labor union system has been the result, he points out. You now have large unions representing an entire industrial or business sector on the one side and small occupation-oriented unions on the other, he says.
Political clout versus niche interests
Major industrial unions, like the United Services Union, Verdi, or the engineering and metalworkers union, IG Metall, each with more than two million members, provide social and political heft to public debates on issues, like minimum wages. However, several small occupational groups have established their own special-interest unions, including train engineers (GdL), pilots (Cockpit) and physicians (Marburger Bund).
“The smaller ones have the advantage of representing the interests of a specific group," says Lesch. "The groups are homogeneous, and can mobilize more easily, because the identification with their own profession is stronger than when different occupational groups are involved."
By contrast, the large industrial unions also represent weaker groups and need to keep in mind that it is harder for the weaker groups to resist pressure from their employers. As a result, demands tend to be less drastic since the big union has to make allowances for its weaker groups, says Lesch.
Lesch does not expect a total fragmentation of German unions just yet. There are significamt hurdles to forming a small, special-interest union, such as having a large war chest to pay for strikes and getting employer associations to accept you as a bonafide negotiating partner in the first place.
A litmus test for the flight attendants
The flight attendants' union, UFO, was founded in 1992, and passed the key litmus test in 2002 when, for the first time, it was accepted as a bargaining partner by Lufthansa. With more than 10,000 members, the union sees itself as "the voice of the cabin crew." In the current contract dispute the union is demanding a five percent wage increase, the end of temporary work contracts and protection against outsourcing. Lufthansa has offered a salary increase of 3.5 percent and a waiver of temporary agency work and layoffs.
Lesch also views the current labor dispute as a major test for the union. "If this strike is successful and the UFO can push through most of its claims, then I see a similar force emerging like [the pilot's union] Cockpit." Nevertheless, collective bargaining is always a compromise, he said, "Even after the dispute you will have to renegotiate and both sides will have to give a little."