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Germany’s Labor Pains

Germany is a country with very few strikes. Whereas the average number of working days lost due to strikes from 2000 to 2004 amounted to 234 per 1,000 employees in Spain, 171 in Canada, and 101 in France, only 3.5 days were lost in Germany. In the OECD’s strike statistics, Germany ranks third from the bottom, ahead of only Poland, with 1.6 lost days, and Japan, with 0.4.

So Germans are all the more disturbed that the train drivers’ union, the GDL, has voted for a nation-wide strike that will paralyze the country. The recently signed wage agreement for all railway employees, negotiated by the rival unions Transnet and GDBA, did not go far enough for the GDL, which is now holding out for a 31% wage hikes.

The strike has been temporarily stopped by a court order, leaving time for negotiations, but the danger remains great because talks have reached an impasse. If the GDL gets a higher wage settlement than achieved in the general wage agreement for all railway workers, the general agreement will become invalid – an outcome that the railway management cannot accept under any conditions.

More importantly, a strike could introduce a paradigm shift in the German labor market for two reasons. First, other privatized state-owned operations, especially postal and telecommunication services, could follow suit. Formerly, these operations could rely on the fact that employees were permanent civil servants (Beamte), a German anomaly.