Germany Braces for Longest Rail Strike as Drivers Walk Out

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Commuters, travelers and companies relying on Germany’s rail network are bracing for what may be the longest train strike in the country’s history as months of negotiations failed to bring about a deal.

Deutsche Bahn AG’s freight traffic has been hit since 3 p.m., while passenger travel will be impacted beginning early Tuesday. The GDL union is calling on more than 19,000 train drivers, switch-yard engineers and conductors to halt work through May 10 for a total 127 hours in the conflict’s eighth walkout.

“We cannot reach an agreement because Deutsche Bahn seems to no longer know itself where it stands,” GDL chief Claus Weselsky said at a Berlin press conference. “The company’s tactic continues to be one step forward and two steps back. Deutsche Bahn does whatever it can to not reach an agreement.”

The government-owned train operator is wrestling with the union over pay, working hours and which employees the union may represent. This week’s strike alone may cost the German economy about 500 million euros ($557 million) as depleted stocks and stuttering supply chains may result in production being hampered or even halted at some companies, according to Eric Schweitzer, president of the DIHK industry association.

Proposed Law

The last round of talks failed on April 29. While Deutsche Bahn said it made a new offer during those negotiations, the union claimed railway sought to extend the talks until a proposed law on union representation comes into effect. Deutsche Bahn also said on May 2 that it offered arbitration, which Weselsky rejected on Monday.

“This strike is absolutely unjust and excessive,” the railway said on Sunday. “It massively hits customers, the company, its employees and the German economy.”

Germany’s parliament is drafting a law that would curtail the GDL’s power by limiting companies’ labor representation to one union per group of employees.

The GDL, with about 34,000 members, claims to represent 80 percent of the country’s train drivers. The union competes with the larger union EVG, which has about 213,000 members and also represents service personnel on trains as well as employees such as ticket agents and maintenance workers. The bill would limit union representation to the trade group with the most members.

Arbitration ‘Viable’

“We’re all waiting with bated breath for a resolution” to the conflict at Deutsche Bahn, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters Monday, adding that it’s up to the negotiating parties to find a compromise. “Arbitration is a possible and viable way out.”

Deutsche Bahn said on on April 29 that it offered 4.7 percent higher wages, plus a one-time payment of 1,000 euros. GDL demands 5 percent higher pay and an hour less work per week.

In 2014, the 165 hours of strikes led by the GDL contributed to the company missing earnings and revenue goals at the freight division and regional and long-distance passenger businesses, Deutsche Bahn said in its annual report. The walkouts cut full-year revenue by about 170 million euros, Chief Financial Officer Richard Lutz told German newspaper Rheinische Post.

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