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OPINION

TRAINS

GDL union is danger to itself and others

By abusing the power to bring the country to a halt at a stroke, train drivers' union GDL is endangering rights for all workers - and its own cause, argues The Local editor Tom Barfield.

GDL union is danger to itself and others
Hamburg's empty main station during a previous rail strike. Photo: DPA

Train strikes have now become so regular in Germany that commuters and travellers will know the emergency schedule before it's even released by Deutsche Bahn (DB): around a third of long-distance services running, and a patchwork picture on regional and S-Bahn lines.

Inevitably, the worst service is in the eastern states, where train drivers' union GDL is strongest.

The latest strike by the few thousand members – over yet another public holiday, with no end date announced in advance and with the usual imperviousness to attempts at negotiation – feels like a desperate last roll of the dice by union boss Claus Weselsky.

DB has shown itself unwilling to bend to Weselsky's demands through a previous week-long strike.

That's partly because that would automatically trigger matching claims from the much larger rail and transport union (EVG) for their members' conditions to match GDL's.

But it may also be because the state-owned giant knows that Weselsky is quickly wearing through the patience of the public and of business, with the economy losing up to €100 million during the previous industrial action.

The strike has hardened resolve in parliament to limit workers' rights with a new “single contract law”, which will see only the union with the most members in a given business able to negotiate with management or call workers out on strike.

Weselsky's strike is not really aimed at getting fewer working hours or more pay, but at grabbing for the right to represent as many DB employees as possible before the law comes into effect.

While there's no doubt that the law threatens GDL's very survival as a political force, and that the union must somehow fight for its own right to exist, it's victimizing millions of others in the process and poisoning the well of public support for the union movement altogether with its repeated strikes.

There aren't nearly so many voices raised against postal workers or kindergarten teachers – both recently out on strike – as there have been against the train drivers, because they're simply not as pivotal to the economy or to everyday life.

GDL is an unusually powerful union, able to affect millions despite its relatively small size. With that great power comes great responsibility not to abuse it, because it can ultimately be stripped away.

The single contract law will pass the Bundestag on Friday, voted through by MPs with hearts hardened against the union movement by months of GDL-DB-EVG deadlock.

Many have attacked that law as unconstitutional, and judges in Karlsruhe may overturn it very quickly after it's passed.

But pro-business voices are already calling on the government to take further measures, such as ruling strikes among certain professions illegal or requiring much larger majorities in strike ballots.

By abusing their power, GDL may be endangering all workers' right to take industrial action in future while doing nothing to further their own cause.

More than any number of millions of damage to the economy or hours of frustration for commuters, that would be a truly miserable outcome for the battle.

Tom Barfield is editor of The Local Germany and spends a lot of time staring at maps. Hassle him on Twitter (or just say hello).

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CHRISTMAS

Strikes hit Amazon in Germany in the run up to Christmas

Around 2,500 Amazon employees at seven sites across Germany were on strike on Tuesday and unions warned stoppages could continue up to Christmas.

Amazon parcel in factory
A parcel rolls along a conveyor belt at an Amazon packing facility in Gera, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Bodo Schackow

The strikes at so-called “fulfilment” centres, where Amazon prepares packages before delivery, began in two locations on Monday.

The Verdi union is calling on Amazon for an “immediate” salary increase of three percent this year, followed by a further 1.7 percent next year, in line with a collective agreement for the retail sector, to which the e-commerce giant does not adhere.

Amazon could not continue to “refuse wage increases that other companies in the sector pay”, Verdi retail head Orhan Akman said in a statement Monday.

Amazon, which operates 17 centres in Germany, argues it is a logistics company, a sector in which the terms of work are considered to be less burdensome for the employer.

Amazon said it did not expect the strike to have an impact on clients.

However, a Verdi spokesman said the stoppage could cause disruption, particularly in Amazon’s rapid-delivery “Prime” offering.

Strikes were likely to continue “until the end of the year”, the spokesman said, impacting on the busy Christmas shopping period.

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Verdi, which first called for strikes at Amazon in May 2013, organised demonstrations outside the fulfilment centres on Tuesday to protest poor working conditions.

Amazon — which has seen its business boom during the coronavirus pandemic as consumers increasingly shopped online — announced in September that it would open eight new centres in Germany, creating 3,000 jobs by 2022.

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