Chaos in Germany from Transport Strikes

Leading up to Thursday's talks, a fresh round of public sector strikes paralyzed airports and brought the capital's public transport system to a halt

Airports across Germany were paralyzed Wednesday morning as members of the services union Ver.di walked off the job. The public sector strike is also affecting state-run institutions such as hospitals and daycare centers, while in Berlin the public transport system ground to halt. The strikes might be making progress, though, as the head of one of the employers' associations says that all offers are not final.

Munich airport was hard hit with 180 flights cancelled, according to an airport spokesperson, while at Germany's biggest airport in Frankfurt 94 flights failed to take off. Other major airports, including Cologne-Bonn, Münster, Nuremberg, Düsseldorf and Stuttgart were also affected by the work stoppages. In the northern city of Hanover the strike at the airport has affected the CeBIT trade fair.

By Wednesday airline Lufthansa had already cancelled over 300 of scheduled domestic flights and had advised passengers to take the train instead. By late afternoon, however, a Lufthansa spokesperson had told the AFP that most of the 18,500 affected passengers had been put on later flights and that intercontinental air traffic had not been affected.

Ver.di has called this week's strikes to put pressure on the state and local governments ahead of a fresh round of negotiations to take place on Thursday in Potsdam. The union is demanding an 8 percent wage increase for its members while the employers are offering just 5 percent linked to an increase in working hours from 38.5 hours to 40 hours a week.

While employees will return to work at the airports in the afternoon, a wave of new warning strikes is set to hit in the afternoon. The union has called upon workers in sectors such as local transportation, child care and waste collection to walk off the job. Employees in hospitals, state-owned banks, retirement homes, theaters and city administrations will also be asked to strike.

On Wednesday Ver.di head Frank Bsirke told the Neue Presse newspaper that the union was "just getting started" and said the warning strikes had shown that the workers were prepared for an "open-ended" dispute. Bsirke has also called the employers' organizations current 5-percent offer "provocative, insulting and shameless."

The employers, meanwhile, have attacked the industrial action. Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper that "paralyzing airports is completely disproportionate." "If the unions continue to behave this way," Landsberg added, "mediation is inescapable."

Such rhetoric might be weakening, however, in the face of the pain the strikes are inflicting, and there are even hints that the employers are considering putting a new offer on the table. Thomas Böhle, for example, the president of the German Local Employers' Association (VKA), told WDR radio that the 5-precent offer was not the final offer. "You can't just walk into negotiations," Böhle said, "and say: 'What we're offering is the final offer.' We're looking for a compromise."

Should compromise not be reached, the union pledges to make things more painful for employers. "Either the public employers put an offer on the table with significant salary increases and no lengthening of working hours," Bsirske said, according to the AP, "or we will show them our strength."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel even entered the fray Wednesday afternoon, stating that the goal must be "that we arrive at level-headed negotiations in as many areas as possible and that the citizens are affected as little as possible in their daily lives."

In Berlin, a separate strike by transport workers brought subway, tram and bus services to a halt on Wednesday morning, as 12,000 employees stayed off the job forcing commuters to crowd onto regional trains amid snow flurries. The workers at Berlin's BVG transport company are threatening to prolong their strike until next Friday, March 14.

The country's transport woes could get worse next week, as the GDL train drivers' union said Tuesday it could strike starting next Monday over an ongoing wage dispute with Deutsche Bahn. Although the employers and trade union had reached a deal in January the GDL is refusing to sign a labor contract, which it says would weaken its power.

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