As Germany's public-sector strikes mark week six, arbitration is now being seen as a possible way to bring the sides closer. In Stuttgart, at the heart of the labor action, union members say they're determined to win.
Protesting strikers in Stuttgart say they aren't ready to back down, even after six weeks
It is about symbolism, many analysts say, this protracted work stoppage by the Verdi services union that has closed kindergartens, interrupted hospital services and kept garbage collection trucks idle inside city garages. While that symbolism may be about union power and unions' futures, there's another powerful symbol of Germany's biggest public-service stoppage in 14 years: trash.
These days, it's everywhere in Stuttgart, this usually pristine city in southwestern Germany, capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg and one of the principle cities of the historical region of Swabia. The Swabians, as the stereotype goes, are not only extraordinarily thrifty; they can be fanatically clean. But six weeks into this public-sector strike, clean is hard to come by, at least in the public sphere. The city is swimming in garbage.
One of the many explosions of trash around Stuttgart
Trashcans have been filled to overflowing, and often, packed to the breaking point, have dumped their contents in a messy circle around them. Stuttgart's street curbs have become the resting place for a rising tide of daily detritus: McDonald's cups, candy wrappers, cigarette packs and old napkins.
"I've had enough of this strike," said Doris Laphardt, 46, as she stepped over a pile of discarded paper in a central square. "This place is beginning to look like New York."
But there could be a glimmer of hope in the strike that until just yesterday, showed no signs of coming to an end. Municipal authorities in Baden-Württemberg and the Verdi services union said on Tuesday they were bringing in outside arbitrators to try to bring the union and public-sector employers, who up until now have dug in their heels in negotiations, come closer together.
The two sides have agreed to bring in two arbitrators, the head of AOK health insurance for Baden-Württemberg, Roland Sing, and a former president of the state's administrative court, Claus Messner. The two began familiarizing themselves with the material on Wednesday morning and talks were planned to begin between representatives from Verdi and employers during the afternoon.
Strike HQ in Stuttgart
Employers want to extend the working week from 38.5 hour to 40 hour without an increase in pay. They say they need to ease up pressure on state coffers -- personnel costs consume almost one-half of state budgets -- and argue that many other civil servants, not to mention the private sector, already work 40-hour weeks. Employers argue that they are asking public-sector employees to only add 18 minutes to each working day.
Verdi counters that increasing the working week will cut employees' take home pay, which would further erode already weak consumer spending in Germany. The union also says the change could endanger some 250,000 jobs in the public sector.
Verdi, along with most of Germany's trade unions, has been struggling with falling membership and an increasing feeling among the populace that it is obstructionist and out of step with the realities of today's labor environment. While 18 minutes a day does not seem like much to ask to help prop up struggling state governments, observers say the strike has become a test of Verdi's ability to maintain its strong role in Germany's centralized bargaining system, which is increasingly under attack.
"It's really about symbolism. The real point is whether they are forced to capitulate on this very symbolic point," Deutsche Bank economist Stefan Schneider told Reuters.
On a cold but clear Tuesday morning outside the Verdi headquarters in Stuttgart, thoughts of capitulation were not in evidence. At 10:30 a.m., amid blowing whistles and rattling noisemakers, a group of some 2,500 strikers began a protest march. Carrying banners, waving red Verdi flags and chanting slogans, the strikers made their way from the union building through central Stuttgart to a large square where speakers encouraged them to stay the fight.
Marching through Stuttgart
There did not seem to be need for much encouraging. In fact, the mood was almost festive, now six weeks into the labor action. Instead of slumped shoulders and resigned expressions, the crowd was marked by a strong sense of determination to fight the fight for as long as it takes.
"Up to now, there hasn't been any strike fatigue. We're ready to do this until we reach the result we want, and we can go on for a while. We have enough money in the strike fund," said Bärbel Illi, 47, an employee of Verdi's Stuttgart branch.
Heike Fischer, 48, is a child-care worker who said that although the media liked to focus on the trouble some parents have had since their child-care facilities have been closed, most parents were behind the action.
"Of course, all of us would rather not be on strike anymore, we would like to be with the children," she said. "But we can't stop now if we want to have a future. We can't give up now, and I'm ready to continue until we are successful."
Confrontation between garbage workers replacement workers
Many of the striking sanitation workers wore signs that said "Strikebreakers, hands off our trash!" referring to the private firms that have been hired to take care of some of the city's sanitation problems. Those two worlds collided briefly after the main rally when a group of striking workers came across a private garbage truck waiting at a stoplight. The group stepped in front of the vehicle and, yelling at the three men sitting inside, tried to cover the truck's windshield with posters to prevent it from driving on. Police had to disperse the group.
Verdi officials say that besides showing its strength, the strike has mobilized union members, many of whom had begun wondering why they were bothering to pay their monthly dues.
"It was important that the unions do something," said Jürgen Rönsch, 37, a cemetery maintenance worker. "In my department there was hardly anyone left in the union, since it never did anything. But now people have been coming back."
Public support waning
While the strike has given Verdi a boost in popularity among those in sectors it represents, it is less clear how the strike will play out among the populace at large. Public disgruntlement about the labor action is growing. In a poll last week carried out for the ZDF public television channel, 61 percent of Germans opposed the protests, up six percentage points from a poll conducted on Feb. 17.
Union members in Stuttgart claim the local media is overplaying the dissatisfaction felt by Stuttgart residents about the strike and the resulting piles of trash. But on Tuesday, most residents asked said they thought it was time for the striking workers to get back on the job.
Tired of the trash
Some were split on the issue, like 50-year-old Maria Schlom, who said she was tired of the trash but trying to remain open: "I can sympathize if the fear is really about losing jobs," she said. "But if it's just about working 40 hours in a week, that I can't understand."
Others supported the action in the beginning but felt that the union had taken things too far. "When they're blocking entrances so trucks can't spread grit on icy streets or private firms can't take away garbage, that's too much," said Agathe Hiller, 48.
But Karl-Heinz Walther, 62, who was visiting Stuttgart with his wife for the day, said he was fully behind the striking workers. "The employers just have to give a little and it'd be all over."
When told that his response was a minority one, his wife chimed in: "Maybe that's because we're not from Stuttgart."