Strikes in various public services sectors in 11 German states are threatening to throw the country into chaos. Verdi, a giant services trade union, called for the strikes in protest over ongoing wage negotiations.
Warning strikes are affecting transportation in 11 states
Employees of the local public transportation sector stopped working for four hours beginning at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, March 4, in the northern city of Hanover, where the first visitors' day at the huge computer fair CeBIT began.
"Most of the strikes are affecting northern Germany," a Verdi spokesman told German public broadcaster ARD.
The warning strikes in the public services sector are to last until Wednesday across the country, Verdi said.
The union has laid down work in several branches including local public transportation, kindergartens and public offices, trash collection services, hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, theaters and administrative offices.
The trade union estimated that 67,000 workers in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia would be participating, according to ARD's online portal tagesschau.de.
The union has also threatened strikes at some of Germany's airports, including Frankfurt, the country's largest airport, and Munich.
Union members working on Berlin's transport network have threatened a 10-day strike, which could bring the German capital to a standstill. Verdi said that a ballot produced about 97 percent backing among members for a large-scale walkout. Union official Frank Baesler said the Berlin transport strike would begin at 3 a.m. on Wednesday.
The commuter train network, which is run by national train operator Deutsche Bahn AG, will not be affected.
Workers want benefits of economic boom
Nursery staff stopped work in last month's warning strikes
"Trash collectors, nurses, stage technicians and teachers want a piece of the pie," a union spokesperson told German Web site of the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, referring to Germany's economic boom.
Management has been unruffled about the strikes. Thomas Boehle, one negotiator for local offices, told the Financial Times Deutschland that a week-long strike would hardly affect municipalities. "Citizens will be affected more than anyone," he said.
In fact, he said: "Municipalities are even partially saving money during that time because they do not have to pay salaries."
Hospitals suffer the most, however.
"A hospital with 500 beds normally loses about 50,000 euros ($76,038) during one day of strikes," Boehle said. During longer strikes, patients must move to private clinics.
Wage negotiations at a standstill
Wage negotiations between Verdi, which represents around 1.3 million federal and local public service sector employees, and employers have stalled. The last round of talks is to begin on Thursday in Potsdam.
Verdi is demanding an 8-percent pay hike, or a minimum increase of 200 euros a month. So far, employers have offered 5 percent hike, distributed over two years. Their offer, however, includes extending the working week by 1.5 hours to a weekly total of 40 hours.
Closed for business: Berlin's bus drivers last month
German workers have seen real take-home pay stagnate, or even decline, in recent years in response to calls for wage restraint in the face of low growth.
Stronger economic growth of 2.9 percent in 2006 and 2.5 percent last year has provided ammunition for demands in various sectors for a substantial pay rise.
The length of warning strikes, as opposed to general strikes, is normally announced in advance.
Warning strikes on Feb. 21 closed down several hundred nursery schools and day-care centers across the country before more strikes the following day saw doctors, bus drivers, waste collectors and a host of other public sector workers down tools in the biggest round of industrial action for higher pay in Germany this year. Some 67,000 workers heeded the call to strike.
Strikes may loom on German rails
Separately, a labor dispute between Germany's main railways company and a train drivers' union, the GDL, flared up anew Monday, with the union threatening to strike again as it did last year.
GDL leader Manfred Schell set a deadline of Friday for the rail company Deutsche Bahn to change a labor contract, "or else our bodies will discuss what to do next." This could include a strike, he said.
Bahn and the GDL had reached a verbal settlement on Jan. 30, but a written agreement embracing rival unions has proved elusive.
Schell flatly rejected the labor agreement offered by Deutsche Bahn. The union repeatedly shut down German freight and passenger rail services last year.