Photographer: Robert Schlesinger/AP Photo

It’s Not Greek ATMs Running Out of Cash. It’s Germany’s

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European travelers have contended for weeks with the possibility that Greece’s dwindling finances might lead to empty ATMs. They should have concerned themselves instead with Germany.

While cash machines in Athens are still operating without any trouble, striking couriers in Berlin this week stopped filling ATMs, leading to a crunch for those trying to make withdrawals. And the open-ended labor dispute with a local security company means there’s no end in sight.

“That all depends on how the company reacts,” said Andreas Splanemann, a spokesman for the Ver.di union representing the security personnel. “There are now a lot of cash machines that are empty.”

Berlin’s strike is the latest in a series of walkouts that have riled a nation more accustomed to mocking the labor strife which has so often beset neighboring France. A strike by train drivers that began Tuesday is paralyzing travel and clogging highways throughout Germany. That action follows a March walkout by pilots at Deutsche Lufthansa AG that led to flight cancellations for 220,000 people.

“It’s really annoying, especially if you’re pressed for time,” Batgerel Militz, a Berlin student, said as she unsuccessfully tried to withdraw cash at two banks. She finally got lucky at the third -- just in time to catch her delayed train. “Probably because of the train strike,” she said with a laugh.

Joking aside, Germany is seeking to curb the influence of smaller unions by drafting a law that would limit companies’ labor representation to one union per group of employees. The measure is currently winding its way through the Bundestag, the country’s lower house of parliament.

Travel Crippled

In the case of the passenger train strike, which is set to run through May 10, the walkout was called by the GDL union, which represents 19,000 train drivers, switch-yard engineers and conductors. The GDL is far smaller than the larger EVG, which has about 213,000 members staffing Germany’s rail network. The Lufthansa strike crippled travel because it was called by pilots.

“They can strike more readily if they do so with solely their own goals in mind,” said Stefan Heinz, an academic specializing in labor politics at Berlin’s Free University. “They can get more out of it for their group.”

While Germans still strike less than the French, those who’ve walked out recently in Germany often hold posts that have a wider ripple effect across society.

Lost Work

Between 2005 and 2013, Germany lost an average of just 16 work days annually per 1,000 employees due to labor action, according to the Hans Boeckler Foundation, the Confederation of German Trade Unions’ research arm. That compares with 139 days in France and 135 in Denmark. The 150,000 total work days that Germany lost in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, was the highest in six years.

State-owned Deutsche Bahn AG said just one-third of long-distance trains were operating Tuesday due to the walkout. The rail strike, which is also crippling freight traffic and is set to be the longest in German history, may cost Europe’s largest economy about 500 million euros ($554 million) according to the DIHK industry association.

“Given the short time-to-market and rail’s major importance in transporting goods, the strike will reduce growth in the second quarter,” Joerg Zeuner, chief economist at German development bank KfW, said in a statement.

Stranded

With unemployment at a record low since reunification, the strikes aren’t about protecting jobs as such. Deutsche Bahn is wrestling with the union over pay, working hours and which employees the union may represent.

Traude Fluder, a Hamburg resident heading to Leipzig with six girlfriends, found herself caught in the crossfire -- stranded in Berlin after checking the railway’s emergency schedule Monday night and calling her travel agent to make sure her train would be operating. By Tuesday morning, things had changed.

“They told us it would be running and now we’re stuck in Berlin,” Fluder said near Deutsche Bahn’s information center at the German capital’s main station, where long lines had formed. “We are very disappointed.”

Hopefully, she didn’t need to withdraw cash. The walkout of 150 of Prosegur SA’s 350 security couriers in the Berlin area has meant that ATMs across the capital are running on empty.

“Prosegur is working with absolute high intensity on individual emergency plans,” the company said in a statement. “We still can’t rule out that cash machines in the region Berlin - Potsdam - Frankfurt Oder remain unfilled.”

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