Germany: Warning strike turns up the steam

By Arnold Schölzel

The author is a former editor of the German newspaper junge Welt, where this article was published March 27. Translation: John Catalinotto

Railroad and Transport Workers rally by the main train station in Bremen, Germany, March 25, 2023, for strike action.

A foretaste of the depth of the strike waves in France or Britain occurred in Germany on March 27: For 24 hours, buses and trains remained largely in depots, airplanes on the ground. Some 335,000 workers responded to the joint call by the United Services Trade Union (Verdi) and the railway and transport union (EVG) for a nationwide warning strike.

[The labor movement in Germany traditionally calls warning strikes of a day’s length as a show of strength when wage negotiations are scheduled. — J.C.]

The strike affected local public transport in seven German states, airports, the working areas of Autobahn GmbH [responsible for the highways], parts of the municipal ports and the water and shipping administration, as well as Deutsche Bahn (DB) with its bus companies and various other rail companies.

Long-distance rail traffic came to a complete standstill. However, the strike did not lead to chaos in cities or on highways — many had apparently prepared for the disruption. According to a survey, 55% of the population supported the walkout.

On the same day, the third round of negotiations with Verdi for the approximately 2.5 million public sector employees of the federal and local governments began in Potsdam [a small city just west of Berlin]. The EVG, which mobilized about 31,000 fellow workers at 800 locations on March 27, is negotiating this week in the second round with 50 rail and transport companies, and with DB on April 24 and 25, but will not strike during Easter.

Verdi is demanding wage increases of 10.5%, with a minimum of 500 euros more over a 12-month period. The management side most recently offered 5% more pay in two stages for a term of 27 months, as well as one-off payments of 1,500 and later 1,000 euros, but rejected a minimum increase. [A minimum increase would tend to equalize wages among the workers. — J.C.]

The EVG is demanding 650 euros per month for all groups among some 230,000 rail and bus employees or alternatively 12% more pay. EVG head Martin Burkert told the German Press Agency that the issue now is “that this industry must not be disconnected from the general wage increase.”

According to Verdi, there is a shortage of 20% of staff in air transport compared to 2019, and in public transport 20% of all jobs have been eliminated in the frenzy of cuts.

Verdi head Frank Werneke said, “All, really all members we have called on to take industrial action today are participating in this strike.” He said they were simply “turning up the steam, because the service workers are fed up with being stonewalled every day with sweet talk, while working conditions are getting worse and worse, and many jobs are unfilled.”

In the past few days, Verdi had already recorded the largest participation in decades, with 400,000 joining warning strikes. According to Werneke, the March 27 action was the largest strike in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1992. At that time, the ÖTV [Public Service Transportation] union paralyzed public service for 11 days.

At a rally in Potsdam, Burkert chided critics of the strike action, asking “whether it is still proportionate when board members earn 40, 50 times, or with bonuses 80, 100 times, what is earned in the services.”

The entrepreneurs, according to Burkert, “like to excuse themselves with the alleged ‘wage-price spiral.’ Apparently, the ‘wage-goodbye-spiral’ means nothing to them. Yet people are running away from them in droves!”

The German Association of Towns and Municipalities had already condemned the action on Monday in advance and on Saturday, in the Rheinische Post, had raised a scolding finger: The warning strike comes “quite close to a general strike.” Well, evidently that’s what the union members mobilized for.

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