How One Small Rail Union Is Bringing Germany to Its Knees

GDL Chairman Claus Weselsky
GDL Chairman Claus Weselsky speaks on Monday, May 18. Photographer: Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At the core of a series of rail strikes threatening to plunge Germany into travel chaos for a second time this month is a tiny transport union that won’t take no for an answer.

GDL, which represents 34,000 rail employees, called on train drivers to walk off the job for an indefinite period from Tuesday in an escalation of a dispute that has repeatedly held up cargo, stranded commuters and caused havoc on the country’s highways. It’s rejecting terms handed down through negotiations between the bigger EVG union, which represents more than 213,000 rail workers, and Deutsche Bahn AG, Germany’s national rail operator.

“The strike is legal, it is right, and it is also proportionate,” Claus Weselsky, GDL’s chairman and chief negotiator said on Monday. Weselsky said the union will give 48 hours advance notice on when the strike will end, adding that the walkout will probably be the longest yet, topping a six-day protest in early May.

GDL is roping millions of passengers and freight customers into its nine-month struggle to obtain the same pay and working conditions for employees shunting trains and locomotives as those operating regular services. On Monday, it again rejected an offer for arbitration under terms spelled out by Deutsche Bahn, saying that it will not support creating a “two-class system” of drivers. It’s open to such a process -- also during the walkout -- if all drivers are treated equally, Weselsky said.

Shunting Drivers

Deutsche Bahn said it will make a replacement schedule available from Tuesday, when freight employees are scheduled to walk off the job at 3 p.m. GDL members working on passenger services will join from 2 a.m. on Wednesday. Board member Ulrich Weber said the rail operator is prepared to pay the shunting drivers the same wages as those responsible for scheduled services with immediate effect, excluding certain supplements, adding that it would be “completely irresponsible” to give in to all of the union’s demands.

The strike, GDL’s ninth walkout in as many months, comes as Deutsche Bahn prepares to reach an agreement with the EVG union on pay and working hours on Thursday, an effort overshadowed by GDL’s action. EVG said it represents about 70 percent of Deutsche Bahn’s 3,200 shunting drivers, leaving fewer than 1,000 represented by GDL. It may also inconvenience Germans on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, with a national holiday on May 25.

Last Showdown

It may be GDL’s last chance for a showdown as Germany’s parliament is scheduled to vote on a law on Friday that would curtail its power by limiting companies’ labor representation to the biggest union in a particular employee group, strengthening larger organizations like EVG.

The abruptness of GDL’s latest decision has taken freight customers by surprise, prompting some to take emergency steps to prevent manufacturing stoppages. Germany’s steel association, Deutsche Bahn’s largest cargo customer, said the last walkout cost it a double-digit million euro sum, and its members barely avoided production breakdowns. Advance notice this time is shorter, and comes at a time when supply chains had just begun to normalize from the last walkout, the lobby group said.

“This will be the widest-reaching strike ever,” said Gerd Aschoff, a spokesman for Pro Bahn, a group representing about 4,000 rail customers. “If executed as announced, it will have some very nasty consequences for our economy. GDL represents a few hundred shunting drivers, and all its customer are paying the price -- it’s a question of proportionality.”

GDL has accused Deutsche Bahn of dragging out negotiations until the new legislation curbing smaller union’s rights is passed. The rail operator said the union failed to show at talks on Sunday and is acting irresponsibly.

“We are appalled by how the union and Deutsche Bahn are each playing the blame game,” Pro Bahn’s Aschoff said.

Deutsche Bahn’s Weber said his negotiation tactics are unrelated to the expected law change, and it sees the GDL as long-term partner.

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