German train drivers' union calls 4-day strike in bitter contract dispute

BERLIN – A union representing German train drivers on Tuesday called its members out on a four-day strike, escalating a bitter contract dispute with the national railway operator just as the government considers how to rein in the power of small unions.

The GDL union said the strike will run from early morning Thursday to Monday morning, with freight train drivers starting already on Wednesday afternoon. It follows a series of shorter strikes, including a two-day walkout last month.

GDL wants a 5 per cent pay increase and shorter working hours. However, the main sticking point is its demand to negotiate not just for train drivers but for other staff, such as conductors and on-board restaurant staff, some of whom are GDL members but who are traditionally represented by a larger rival union.

National railway Deutsche Bahn has said it offered a raise of 5 per cent over 30 months for the drivers but won’t accept rival pay deals for other employees.

GDL chairman Claus Weselsky said in announcing the strike that the union’s “fundamental right” to negotiate for all its members “is in danger and with it the function of unions as such.”

Germany long had relatively cordial labour relations, with big unions negotiating wage deals for a whole company’s workers, but recent years have seen a rise in the power of small unions representing single or a few professions — such as airline pilots or cabin staff.

The government hopes to finalize legislation this year to try and curb disruption caused by smaller groups.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday it aims to ensure “that the strength of labour relations can’t be undermined by the founding of more and more individual unions, which in the end wouldn’t sufficiently reflect the overall good of employees.”