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Germans Look to Talks Amid Drawn-Out Strike

DW staff (jen)
February 20, 2006

Germany's ongoing civil service strike could have widespread repercussions for unions. As high-level talks on Monday failed to reach agreement, union leader Frank Bsirske settled in for a long haul.

Bsirske led the civil servants into battle. What will be the outcome?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In all, it is the largest strike Germany has seen in 14 years, with more than 30,000 civil servants -- including trash collectors, kindergarten teachers, nurses and government officials -- stopping work across the country.

Streik bei der Müllabfuhr
Strikes among trash collectors has led to garbage hills like this one in Lower SaxonyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Prior to a crucial high-level meeting between unions and public service representatives, key negotiators gave no clear signals that the talks would be fruitful. State leaders have formed a united front in favor of increasing civil service work hours from 38.5 to 40 hours, while the union has said it is committed to preventing this.

At the head of services trade union ver.di is Frank Bsirske. Ver.di was created five years ago when five smaller unions joined forces, and Bsirske's gift has been the ability to unify his union's various membership streams into a single, powerful organization.

At stake: a union's reputation

As the 54-year-old union organizer sees it, the current fight is about more than just jobs and money for its members. It will decide whether Germany's approximately three million civil servants will have equal pay and working conditions on the local, state and federal level.

More importantly, the results of the strike show whether ver.di -- one of the world's largest trade unions -- is capable of supporting its members in the face of opposition from public employers.

Like virtually all German unions, ver.di has seen its membership rolls decline recently. It is clear that the fight over the work week will be a decisive one for Bsirske and the unions alike.

Up to now, everything has gone well for the unions -- the strike has enjoyed more than 50 percent approval among the public -- but the honeymoon may not last. If employers remain inflexible, goodwill may well begin to drop off.

'Fight for prestige'

A loss for ver.di in this case could mean a reassessment of the value of unions in German society.

"Ver.di is fighting for its prestige and its influence on the political stage," Berlin union researcher Hans-Peter Müller told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

Streik im öffentlichen Dienst
Ver.di members took to the streetsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For Bsirske, the battle will be a complex one; the strikes are essentially defensive moves against the state and local governments, which are wrangling over details of wage agreements and work hours.

A defensive strike is unusual for Germany's civil servants, and it is a new experience for Bsirske. The last widespread work conflict, 14 years ago, saw some 400,000 workers hit the streets, and public services in the country suffered greatly. As a result, when Bsirske was coming up the union ranks, the mere threat of a strike was enough to bring parties to the table.

Not afraid of conflict

But Bsirske doesn't shy away from conflict. As head of personnel for the city of Hanover, he had to cut some 1,000 jobs.

"As someone with three decades of union work, and who also had personnel responsibilities in a large organization, I not only learned how to communicate, but how to deal with conflict," he said. "But I think these abilities are expected in a union leader. He needs to be able to find common solutions with employers, and when nothing else works, he has to be able to get into conflicts. If the membership wants it."

Politics in the blood?

Bsirske studied political science, and even today he is a political person. The son of a Volkswagen works council head, he joined the Social Democratic party at age 15, and later represented the Greens in Hanover. He is the only union leader who is a member of the Greens.

"I think a union that represents such a wide array of jobs and careers is well served by someone with a slightly unusual background," he said.

With so much riding on the outcome of the strikes, union members can only help Bsirske is right.

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