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Strikes For Members

EXPLAINED: Why are there so many strikes in Germany right now?

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why are there so many strikes in Germany right now?
Participants in a warning strike of federal and local government workers walk through the city centre of Schwerin holding a banner with the inscription "10.5 percent, at least €500 more is more for all of us" on March 7th, 2023. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Daniel Bockwoldt

As widespread industrial action continues throughout Germany, we spoke to an expert to find out the reasons behind it.

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What’s going on?

Whether you’ve got rubbish piling up in your bins, had a flight cancelled, or had to improvise childcare due to a closed Kita - if you live in Germany, chances are you’ve been affected by some form of strike action over the last few weeks.

That’s because several trade unions are currently negotiating wage increases for their employees. Germany’s second-largest trade union – Verdi – is negotiating for increased wages for more than 2.5 million public sector workers across the country and has been using a series of so-called 'warning strikes' to put pressure on employers and on the government.

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Members of Germany's largest trade union - the Industrial Union of Metalworkers (IG Metall) - have been striking recently too and walk-outs amongst railway staff could also be on the horizon, as the rail and transport union (EVG) is currently negotiating for wage increases for Deutsche Bahn employees. 

READ ALSO: German airports facing chaos amid renewed strike action Friday

What are workers asking for?

Verdi wants to see a 10.5 percent pay increase, or at least €500 more per month, for their members.

They are also demanding a pay increase of €200 per month for trainees, students and interns and that apprentices be offered permanent employment after successfully completing their training.

The union has so far rejected tax-free, one-off payments, which had been accepted in other wage settlements last year.

The EVG, which is negotiating for around 180,000 employees at Deutsche Bahn, are demanding 12 percent more pay, or at least €650 more a month. For junior staff, they are asking for at least €325 more per month for a period of twelve months. 

READ ALSO: Will Deutsche Bahn staff be next to strike in Germany?

IG Metall, meanwhile, is demanding an 8 percent pay increase, or at least €200 more per month.

Prior to reaching a settlement, Deutsche Post workers were demanding a 15 percent pay rise for the approximately 160,000 employees.

Professor Dr. Thorsten Schulten, head of the Collective Agreement Archive at the Economic and Social Research Institute (WSI) of the Hans Böckler Foundation told The Local that inflation is the main driver of the current demands.

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"Workers in Germany are confronted with historically high rates of inflation and losses in real wages. This is why the current collective bargaining round is focused on substantial pay increases and safeguarding purchasing power."

Is this kind of widespread strike action common in Germany?

According to Dr. Schulten, compared to other countries, Germany tends to be “in the lower midfield in terms of the number of strikes”.

"The impression of many strikes always arises when there are strikes in the public service and in the public transport sector with buses and trains because relatively many citizens are affected. In reality, however, the number of strikes is rather limited.”

How powerful are trade unions in Germany?

Dr. Schulten explained to us that, in Germany, about 16 percent of all employees are currently members of a trade union and, while the degree of unionisation is still significantly higher in some industrial and public sectors, it is much lower in others - particularly in many private service sectors.

"However, as companies complain about labour and skills shortages in many areas, the bargaining position of trade unions has recently strengthened again,” he said.

Employees of the Bonn municipal utilities (SWB), demonstrate during a warning strike in the city centre on March 3rd, 2023. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

But the right to strike is much more limited in Germany than, for example, in France because only trade unions are allowed to call on their members to walk out, and only in the context of collective bargaining, Dr. Schulten explained.

"Political strikes, such as those currently taking place in France against the planned pension reform, would hardly be possible in Germany," he said. 

Is the German public generally sympathetic to industrial action?

"In general, there is a lot of sympathy among the German public for the industrial action of the trade unions," Dr. Schulten said. "People think that for good public services - e.g. in health and social services - the employees have to be well paid."

In his view, public sympathy is holding out through the current waves of industrial action.

READ ALSO: Healthcare workers across Germany begin two-day strike

"Many public sector workers did a very good job during the Covid pandemic and were applauded from all sides," he said. "Now it is important that this is also recognised in terms of pay and that workers receive at least real wage compensation."

Will more strikes follow?

As the negotiations continue so, it seems, could the strikes.

However, open-ended strike action by Deutsche Post will now be avoided as the organisation has reached an agreement with Verdi on a pay increase of 11.5 percent for employees from April 2024, as well as several inflation compensation bonuses in the meantime.

The agreement came after an overwhelming majority of postal workers voted in favour of open-ended strike action. It could be that other unions follow this example and vote for long-term strike action to bring negotiations to a head. 

READ ALSO: Düsseldorf public transport 'at a standstill' due to strikes

Hagen Lesch, a collective bargaining expert at the Institute of the German Economy (IW), recently told German news site RND that, he currently sees the unions as willing to engage in conflict. "The higher the union demand, the more likely conflicts are to escalate," said Lesch. "We can already see that we are facing more conflicts in the near future."

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However, as Dr. Schulten pointed out to us, most strikes in Germany are temporary ‘warning strikes’, which have the function of demonstrating to the employer that the workers are capable of going on strike, but are actually aimed at preventing a ‘real’ strike. 

"The example of the German Post has just made this very clear," he said. "Only after a large majority of workers had voted in favour of an indefinite strike, were the employers prepared to make an offer, on the basis of which a compromise could finally be found."

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