For weeks now, Germans have been talking about trains.
The last two work stoppages in a series of strikes to hit national operator Deutsche Bahn were particularly severe, disrupting transportation for days on end, but we don't have to delve anymore into that topic. The strike is over - at least for the time being.
The great majority of media debates focused on the dispute between Deutsche Bahn and a niche train drivers union, the GDL, which was often portrayed in the media as a David vs. Goliath kind of struggle, a union comprising just 20,000 train employees taking on the behemoth Deutsche Bahn that employs over 300,000 people in Germany and abroad.
That a union, like GDL could prove so wieldy has taken even German's top federal politicians to task, with parliament debating - and ultimately passing - a law on Friday that is intended to curb the influence of such "small" unions when it comes to labor relations in Germany.
All about the "€"
One question, however, seemed to go missing throughout the media frenzy, which is astounding given its central importance: How much does a train driver for Germany's rail giant actually earn?
The answer is, quite simply, not very much.
According to information supplied by both Deutsche Bahn and GDL (a rare instance of mutual corroboration between the two, incidentally, but then again that's no surprise - the wages are strictly defined by contract), the most you can possibly earn as a Deutsche Bahn train driver is just a bit above 3,500 euros ($3,850) a month. That's before taxes, by the way, and it's the highest pay grade on the table, meaning these employees have taken on the highest amount of responsibility possible (team leader) - and that they've been around at Deutsche Bahn for a quarter of a century.
Just starting out, Deutsche Bahn drivers earn a relatively meager 2,300 euros, again before taxes. To provide a bit of perspective, working full-time on minimum wage in Germany would give you a monthly gross salary of around 1,600 euros.
Over time, the salary at Deutsche Bahn slowly increases. With five years experience, train drivers earn just under 2,500 euros; if they take on extra responsibilities, like training other workers, they can earn up to 3,200 euros. With 10 years experience, the minimum salary climbs to 2,600 euros, and the maximum 3,300 euros. With 15 years under your belt, you can be making 2,700 and 3,400 euros, and with 20 years experience your gross salary gamut rises to between 2,800 and 3,500 euros.
Anything but top ranking
Within Germany, if you drive a train and you work for a rail operator other than Deutsche Bahn (yes, these exist), will you earn more? The short answer is: no. The Deutsche Bahn wages correspond more or less to those for all other regional and long-distance services.
Around Europe, however, the story is far different.
According to data last collected in 2007, Germany lagged well behind a host of its western neighbors with regard to average salaries for train drivers (see graph above).
To be fair, these numbers were gathered and presented by the GDL in 2007, based on income statements provided by unions representing drivers in each respective country. Requests to those unions for information regarding how the salaries have fluctuated over time, however, went unanswered.
Viewed against the backdrop of Germany's GDP increase since 2007 (roughly 10 percent), the wage growth for Germany's train drivers over the past eight years is absolutely on track. The mean gross salary for drivers of all ages in 2007 was around 2,500 euros, compared to just under 2,750 euros in 2015.
Assuming the salaries for drivers in those other countries have followed the same trend, German drivers - and their union - have more than enough reason to keep up the heat on Deutsche Bahn. A six-percent wage increase, which is what the GDL has been demanding from the start, wouldn't even bring German drivers on par with Italy, the fifth in that group of six nations inspected in 2007.
And despite Friday's parliamentary move against those small unions, you can bet the GDL will be keeping German commuters and travelers on their seats in the next weeks - or off of them actually.