Far from being only a footnote to the French strike, the rail workers’ strike on 14-17 November — about union recognition and pay — is an important struggle.
In 1994, the former East German Reichsbahn was merged with the West German Bundesbahn, and the new company, Deutsche Bahn, became a “private” company, albeit owned entirely by the state. Since the fall of the Wall, 400,000 jobs on the German railways have been destroyed, yet the new company has only made a profit since 2005.
The major union, Transnet, part of the German TUC, supports a planned sell-off, and Transnet’s leader Norbert Hansen has a strong, public friendship with DB boss Mehdorn. However the German Social Democrats do not support the complete sale of DB, and this has left Transnet isolated.
Transnet agreed with DB a 4.5% pay increase; that was intended to guarantee both Transnet’s position as the major recognised union, and also the union’s pro-privatisation position. However the demands of train drivers and crew have got in the way of the union-company partnership.
Since 1994 workers have suffered longer hours, unpaid overtime, irregular shift patterns. Many are only informed of their shifts the day before. Such working conditions were agreed by Transnet.
Around 80% of drivers, and an increasing number of train crew have been looked for alternative representation — in the smaller, but older, union GDL.
The German media has been confused by this “English-style” (!) trade unionism — workers’ leaders wearing leather jackets, not pin-stripe suits, who are “in tow” to their members... talk of indefinite strikes, and the headline demand for 31%. This is a misnomer, put around by DB bosses to discredit the GDL along with their attempts to recruit 1000 new drivers and to find strike breakers abroad. However, opinion polls consistently show — even during and after recent strikes — majority support for the GDL and lay the blame for the dispute at the door of DB management.
Court decisions which banned the GDL from taking action — as strikes “would affect the economy” (!) — were eventually overturned, leading to the most recent stoppages, in freight, inter-city and local rail transport. It seems that the GDL will get recognition and achieve a better deal for its members, improving the 4.5% Transnet agreement.
Companies who use “just-in-time” methods have been badly affected by the strikes — car production came to a halt in Brussels, for example. The employer’s lobby will put DB under pressure to end the dispute.
While industrial unions (like Transnet) may be correct in principle, it is no surprise that groups of well-organised workers who have seen few gains and worsening conditions decide to organise themselves elsewhere. It is therefore a disgrace that the GDL has so far received next to no official support from other union leaders or even minor bureaucrats — especially when the DGB union Verdi have profited well from dissatisfied ex-Transnet members (and organisers) joining them.
Even the “official” Communist Party, the DKP, has refused to support and has criticised the dispute, and the “Left Party” leadership is badly split on the issue. Staff who have “Beamten”-status (civil servants) who are not allowed to strike (but who do not have to cross picket lines) worked in place of GDL members on strike days. Some trains were replaced by bus services run by DB regional bus companies. Most of the workers in both cases would have been members of Transnet.
Picket lines are so rare in Germany that the idea of “never crossing” one clearly needs to be relearnt.