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Trade unions clash as German rail strike rolls on

September 4, 2021

Germany's umbrella trade union has accused the GDL union, which is organizing the six-day walkout, of pitting workers against each other. Meanwhile, politicians are considering tighter strike rules.

A red signal light shines through thick fog in Dortmund, with no trains visible on the tracks
With the strike set to last until early Tuesday, the GDL trade union organizing it is facing criticismImage: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture alliance

Only a skeleton service of regional, long-distance and freight trains were operating across Germany on Saturday.

Deutsche Bahn (DB), the main national rail provider, said that roughly 19,700 train drivers had downed tools in total since the industrial action started on Wednesday evening for freight services, with passenger disruptions starting early on Thursday morning. 

Just 30% of long-distance cross-border trains were in operation on Saturday, albeit a slight rise from around one-quarter in recent days. Roughly four in 10 local trains were still running.

Train drivers pushing 'particular interests'

The GDL trade union, whose members are mainly but not exclusively train drivers, is orchestrating the walkout. Having prevailed in two emergency legal challenges against the strike from DB, it intends to continue the strike until its scheduled end at 2 a.m. next Tuesday.

However, the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), one of the countries' largest umbrella trade unions, accused the GDL of "pitting different groups of employees against each other." 

"What we look upon critically is that in this case one group of staff, like the train drivers, is pushing through its particular interests at the cost of the collective interests of all other Bahn employees," DGB chairman Reiner Hoffmann told Saturday's edition of the Rheinische Post newspaper. 

A series of stationary freight trains (with some passenger trains also visible in the background) in Dortmund
The strike is affecting passenger and freight services alikeImage: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture alliance

Hoffmann argued that GDL chairman Claus Weselsky was refusing to return to the negotiating table with DB, even though the two sides were not very far apart.

Rivalries in the spotlight

The GDL is not a member of the DGB federation of unions, but is rather part of a rival organization, the German civil servant's federation (DBB). DGB chief Hoffmann accused the smaller GDL of trying to use the strike to alter the balance of power. 

Separately, the chairman of the Association of German Transport Companies (the VDV) said that public patience was nearing breaking point. 

"We're experiencing that our customers no longer understand at all the length of the strikes and the GDL's stubbornness in not returning to the negotiating table," Oliver Wolff said. "To that end, the VDV calls on the GDL in the name of the industry and in the interests of rail travelers to restore services as quickly as possible." 

Dirk Flege, who heads a group of rail-related businesses and non-profits known as Allianz pro Schiene, said that he hoped the labor dispute would soon be resolved "both in the interests of millions of rail customers and climate change." 

Conservatives float tighter strike rules

The Green party also warned that major disruptions to rail services could affect the climate.

"I hope that customers are not put off by the strike and do not turn to cars or buses more in the future," a senior Green politician, Oliver Krischer, said. 

Travelers in Munich wait to board a long-distance Flixbus coach bound for Budapest
Germany's long-distance international rail services are running at 30% capacity, forcing some travelers to seek alternativesImage: Sven Hoppe/dpa/picture alliance

Meanwhile, a business-focused group within the conservative Christian Democratic Union sketched out a proposal recommending new, stricter rules for train and plane strikes. The initiative, leaked first to mass-circulation newspaper Bild and later to the DPA news agency, comes after similar disruptions involving German pilots and airport staff in recent years. 

The proposal advocates clearer rules on a minimum level of service that should be maintained during strikes, and an obligation for trade unions to enter into arbitration before collective bargaining agreements fail. It also called for an additional minimum quorum, requiring that 50% of all a union's members vote in favor at a strike ballot. Currently, 75% approval among those members who do vote is required, but turnout can often be limited.

According to Deutsche Bahn, while almost 20,000 train drivers have downed tools, the GDL's appeal for its members in other roles to join the strikes had "hardly" been heeded. Most GDL members who worked train stations, in maintenance and repair, or on the rail tracks themselves were still reporting for duty, DB said.

msh/dj (AFP, dpa)

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