German Train Drivers Plan Open-Ended Strikes in 2008

After weeks of talks, the German train drivers' union walked away from the negotiating table on Wednesday. More delays are expected in the future

People headed home for Christmas don't need to worry. The prognosis for New Year's looks good, too. But the coast isn't entirely clear. There's another nationwide train strike barreling down the tracks at full speed.

The German train drivers' union GDL announced Thursday that they would walk off the job on Jan. 7, 2008, setting the scene for another nationwide shutdown. The announcement comes after weeks of negotiations between the 34,000-member GDL and Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway. On Wednesday the union abruptly called off talks with Deutsche Bahn. Union officials said the company wasn't willing to go far enough in its pay-raise offers.

The union, whose 62-hour train strike in November was the longest in German history, has refused to set an end date for the next walk-out. The labor conflict wouldn't end until the union is "adamantly confident that talks are on the right track," GDL boss Manfred Schell said Thursday.

For months GDL has been battling for a separate wage agreement with Deutsche Bahn, hoping to secure a higher raise for its members. The rail company, by contrast, wants a single wage agreement with all its 134,000 employees. This summer it gave out an across-the-board 4.5 percent raise.

But GDL is holding out for a separate, better deal -- somewhere between 10 and 30 percent. German train drivers are some of the most poorly paid in Europe, earning €1,290 ($1,880) per month -- half of what their colleagues in France make.

The threat of another strike seems calculated to bring a sense of urgency to the bargaining table. Schell told reporters that two dozen or so points remain contested. The union chief had a simple message for Deutsche Bahn boss Hartmut Mehdorn: "If we're going to solve this at the negotiating table, we'll be spending Christmas together -- because we're not nearly done."

German politicians have expressed their concerns. The last strike left tens of thousands of passengers stranded and wagons full of freight backed up at ports in Hamburg and elsewhere. The passenger association Pro Bahn estimates the drivers have spent 174 hours on strike since the labor dispute began. Conservative Christian Democratic politician Hans-Peter Friedrich told Deutschland Radio Kultur that German passengers were fed up and would increasingly turn to driving cars.

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