Last weekend, in the middle of the autumn holiday season, the union representing German train conductors, GDL, threw the travel plans of rail travelers into disarray.
On Friday, the GDL called a 50 hour-long strike that took the train staff of state-owned Deutsche Bahn off the job for the weekend, shutting down long-distance and regional train traffic. The company accused the union of running amok and spoiling the holidays of millions of people out of a "lust for power."
GDL, like the pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit or the doctors' association Marburger Bund, is a so-called niche or specialist union. Niche unions represent a small group of workers, but they can paralyze half the country when they go on strike.
After the Second World War, the big unions affiliated with the German Trade Union Federation endorsed the principle of "one company, one union." They were motivated in part by a lesson learned from the bad experiences of the Nazi era, when the hopelessly fragmented specialist and sectarian unions were easily broken by the ruling brownshirts.
Employers were happy to go along with this principle because it enabled them to engage in collective bargaining with a single union. Article Nine of Germany's Basic Law, however, includes a paragraph stating: "All Germans shall have the right to form associations."
That's the legal basis invoked by the specialist professional unions. They argue that their members are exposed to high physical and psychological stress and bear great responsibility.
Specifically, train conductors are burdened by a high number of suicides on German railroad tracks - an average of three a day - which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. This occupational group, like pilots or doctors, feels it would be inadequately represented by big unions that encompass many trades.
Two judgments of the Federal Labor Court in 2010 have weakened the previously established practice of including all professions operating in a company within a single bargaining unit, and since then, the small specialist unions have been increasingly making their presence known.
Niche unions: A public nuisance
Strikes by these small occupational groups are becoming a frequent focus of public anger, because they cause enormous economic damage.
Although the Rhine-Westphalia Institute for Economic Research in Essen has found that the new specialist unions have left no measurable traces on strike activities in Germany, this is only true if the measure is the absolute number of strike days by all unions.
In the public's perception, strike actions have increased enormously because of the effects on public life when the members of specialist unions like train drivers, pilots or doctors walk off the job.
Employers accuse the niche unions of power plays and extortion. Labor Minister Nahles intends to put a bill before the Bundestag in early November with the aim of strengthening collective bargaining and taming the specialized trade unions and professional associations.
The specialist unions, however, are observing the minister's efforts with equanimity - because paragraph three in Article Nine of the Basic Law further states that "the right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions is guaranteed to everyone and for all occupations. Agreements seeking to restrict or impede this right are null and void; measures directed toward such aims are unlawful. "
In other words, any law that attempts to restrict smaller unions' right to form or to go on strike will be overturned by the Federal Constitutional Court. That, at least, is the view of lawyers representing the specialist unions of Germany's doctors, pilots and train drivers.
On the other hand, once such a law is in force, the niche unions won't be able to do much for their members for a long time, since the Federal Constitutional Court can take years to arrive at its judgments. This explains why the niche unions are making such a ruckus at the moment: They know their opportunity to press their agendas may soon be put on ice.
In seven states, the autumn holidays began this past weekend; in four others, they had just ended or are still ongoing. But people were unable to count on travelling by rail. Deutsche Bahn passenger train services were hit by train-conductor strikes from Saturday morning at 2 a.m. until Monday morning at 4 a.m. nationwide. Freight trains were subject to walkouts starting Friday afternoon.
The union was prepared to make concessions in the framework of substantive negotiations, declared GDL chief Claus Weselsky. But he insisted that Deutsche Bahn must abandon its "dreams of a single bargaining unit." GDL was demanding a 5 percent wage increase, less overtime, and a two-hour reduction in the train drivers' work week.