It’s a dramatic strike, the biggest in years, but it has several complicated angles. Most complicated: a major demand of the locomotive engineers is recognition of their own union, which is a breakaway from the general transportation workers’ union and represents about three quarters of the 20,000 engineers. When the West German trade union movement was revived after the war, it was based on a federation of 16 industrial unions. Several have amalgamated since then, and two giants are especially strong, the IG Metall for all in that branch and one called ver.di for public service workers. Their size is part of their strength, but nearly all unions have been suffering big losses in recent years, caused by giant layoffs, outsourcing, joblessness in general, and also lack of militancy by some of the unions.
The locomotive engineers accuse their industrial union Transnet of just that — lack of militancy and especially neglect of their particular position. Driving a train is a highly-skilled job and always a huge responsibility, since mistakes on freight trains and even more on passenger trains can result in countless deaths. But the engineers get wages as low as staff in the stations and elsewhere, a measly rate of about 1,500 euros a month, sometimes with work weeks of 55 hours or more. Since Transnet was not representing them satisfactorily, they decided to go it alone and formed their own union, the GDL, which is in a string position; without them a train can’t move. But this raises the question of splitting and has cut into support for them to some degree, also from other unions. But a high proportion of the general public has been supporting them all the same — their wages are very low by average standards — and the railroad company is very unpopular. It has used non-members and some sections of its staff who are not allowed to strike to keep part of the trains running on an emergency basis, and this has been more successful in
Another angle is that German railroads, with only minor exceptions, are a state-owned corporation. Theoretically, the government should be either supporting the workers or working for some acceptable compromise. Its first efforts in this direction didn’t work, and it seems to be leaving the victory to whoever is strongest. But during the seven months this conflict has been simmering or going on, the Minister of Transportation in the Cabinet, a Social Democrat named Tiefensee, has gone along with the tough head of the railroads in an attempt to privatize the industry, if not the entire railroad system, then at least all the rolling stock, leaving the government only with the tracks and stations. Since more and more people have come to see this as a rip-off, with bad results for the workers and the public, the decision had to be postponed, but it is still on the agenda of the railroad company boss and most of the government (despite opposition by Social Democratic rank and file). This is relevant to the strike in part because the head of the Transnet union has also supported privatization, despite what it would mean to his membership.
There are rumors this weekend that the company is beginning to modify its stubborn stance and come up with some counterpropositions for negotiation. But the threat of an unlimited railroad strike is, at this writing, approaching as fast as any high speed locomotive.