In a reveral of a previous ruling, a German court will allow train drivers to expand their strikes to long-haul and freight routes. There are fears that more strikes could hit the economy hard.
Passengers will likely soon be finding other ways to get from point A to B
The court on Friday, Nov. 2, overturned a ruling last month that imposed a ban on strikes affecting the long-distance and freight services of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway.
"The decision opens the door to strikes that will cause major disruptions to freight and passenger traffic," Deutsche Bahn negotiator Werner Bayreuther said after the ruling. "This is not a good day for our clients.
Manfred Schell, head of the GDL union which represents about 34,000 drivers, applauded the ruling and urged Deutsche Bahn to come up with another offer or face more strike action.
Drivers with the GDL union, which represents about 34,000 Deutsche Bahn employees, says its workers are underpaid in comparison with those elsewhere in Europe and wants pay raises of up to 31 percent. It has rejected a deal for a 4.5 percent wage hike struck between the rail company and two other unions. It also refused a separate offer made by Deutsche Bahn.
GDL, which has brought much of Germany's local commuter traffic to a halt repeatedly over recent weeks, said it aimed to target goods traffic, if the regional labor court sitting in the city of Chemnitz upheld its appeal.
Analysts have said a strike that includes freight services could have a serious impact on Europe's largest economy. The reach of Deutsche Bahn, a transport and logistics giant, spreads across Europe and into Asia and the Middle East.
A freight strike would seriously affect Germany's key carmaking, steel and chemicals sectors, with analysts putting the total costs at up to 50 million euros ($75 million) a day, according to estimates from the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin
Goods deliveries by rail could be halted
"When freight traffic is included the economic damages naturally occur quickly," the institutes Claudia Kemfert told Deutsche Welle.
Many German companies have cut standing stocks in favor of punctual delivery, meaning a break in deliveries could lead some firms to stop their production lines, she added.
German automaker Daimler, however, said a freight strike would have little effect on its production.
"We have been preparing for a possible strike for a long time," a company spokesman said on Friday, adding that the company would meet its transportation requirement through additional road service.
Harbors rely on rail deliveries
Harbor operators in the German port cities of Bremen and Hamburg also rely heavily on DB to deliver freight containers. Nearly 70 percent of the containers that pass through the two harbors are loaded onto trains.
Waiting for an agreement between the railway and the GDL union
A Deutsche Bahn spokesman said Thursday that an additional 100,000 trailer trucks would be required to transport the goods currently conveyed by rail. Experts, however, said road transportation would not match the scale of rail transport ant that harbor storage facilities would fill within two days.
"Every freight car, every locomotive and every locomotive conductor is desperately needed," according to a statement from the Germany steel economic association.
The train conductors' union, GDL, pledged before the ruling that there would be no strikes over the weekend.
"Strikes will start at the earliest on Monday," a union spokesman said in Frankfurt, adding that strikes would be expanded to long-distance passenger trains if the freight strikes did not elicit an improved offer from the Bahn.
Government wants more talks
German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee expressed alarm at plans to target goods traffic.
Transportation Minister Tiefensee says the economy could be seriously damaged
"It's not unlikely that if goods traffic is negatively affected over days or weeks, or even months, that this would cause serious damage to the economy," he told ARD national television Friday. "We must stop that."
Tiefensee also said the federal government was working to get Bahn and union officials to return to the negotiation table.
The drivers seriously disrupted commuter and regional passenger services with a 30-hour strike at the end of October. The Chemnitz court on Oct. 5 banned strikes targeting freight and long-distance trains that runs daily on its 34,000 kilometers of track.
Europe's biggest rail operator, Deutsche Bahn carries more than 5 million passengers daily, 4.8 million of them using its regional and commuter services.