German industry worried over train strike
6 November 2007, Berlin (dpa) - Militant train drivers were holding German manufacturing in suspense Tuesday after a court ruling in their favour opened the way for a shutdown of the country's economically vital rail network. The mass-circulation Bild newspaper reported it had information the GDL union would on Thursday call out drivers on the 4,800 goods trains that use the network daily. Transport experts say Germany's key motor vehicle, steel and chemical industries would be severely hit. Almost all the
6 November 2007
Berlin (dpa) - Militant train drivers were holding German manufacturing in suspense Tuesday after a court ruling in their favour opened the way for a shutdown of the country's economically vital rail network.
The mass-circulation Bild newspaper reported it had information the GDL union would on Thursday call out drivers on the 4,800 goods trains that use the network daily.
Transport experts say Germany's key motor vehicle, steel and chemical industries would be severely hit. Almost all the huge plants operate on the "just-in-time" principle and would soon lack raw materials or find their warehouses clogged with finished goods.
Coal transports to power stations would also be affected.
Some 340 million tons - or 10 per cent of all goods - move by rail in Germany each year.
The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) believes that after three days a goods train strike would have major economic impact. Many of the trains cross international borders.
DIW economist Claudia Kemfert put the potential cost at up to 50 million euros (75 million dollars) a day.
Confederation of German Industry (BDI) President Juergen Thumann warned of "drastic consequences" following Friday's labour court ruling in the eastern city of Chemnitz that lifted strike bans on goods and long-distance passenger traffic.
Since the dispute began in the spring, the union has repeatedly paralysed commuter trains, used by around 4.8 million passengers every working day.
Aware that support among the travelling public was fraying, the union has announced a change of tactics.
But what form the new tactics would take remained unclear. GDL boss Manfred Schell said over the weekend there would be no strikes this week as the union allowed the state-owned rail company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), time to digest the Chemnitz ruling.
A union spokesman promptly contradicted that statement and said strikes this week were likely.
Schell's deputy, Claus Weselsky, said the union was aware of the power it now held and that no rapid decisions would be taken.
But the GDL Berlin regional head, Hans-Joachim Kernchen, said the time was ripe "for making a big noise" and demanded a strike on Wednesday.
There were signs of rising concern at DB. Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn has written to Chancellor Angela Merkel demanding the government intervene in the dispute.
Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, attempting to pilot a part-privatization bill through the Bundestag, also expressed alarm.
The Chemnitz ruling had raised the stakes, with the likelihood of serious damage to the economy. "It is essential that the negotiations are rapidly resumed," he said.
Since the beginning of the dispute - the first strike by the GDL's 15,000 train drivers was in July - observers have seen a personality clash between Schell and Mehdorn as the root cause.
Both are nearing the end of their careers - Mehdorn is 65 and Schell 64. Both adopt a combative and even abrasive stance when speaking to each other and at each other through the media.
Schell has made clear that the GDL's 31-per-cent wage demand is not his key concern. "We can talk about that," he has said. Rather it is the insistence on a separate contract.
And Mehdorn has declared his readiness to make wage concessions but will not budge on the contract issue, saying in his letter to Merkel that this would "divide rail staff and result in an unmanageable plethora of contracts."
Labour lawyer Hermann Reichold dismissed the separate contract issue as a "formality," predicting that DB would be forced to cave in to the GDL well before the Christmas travel period.
Mehdorn's argument that other rail groups could demand their own contract was "absurd," as the solidarity between drivers was unique, the academic at Tuebingen University said.
That was little consolation to BDI President Thumann, who saw a strike of even a few days' duration as unthinkable, amid boom conditions on world markets for German manufactured goods.
"Widening the train drivers' strikes to goods traffic could lead to serious damage to the economy," he warned.
Subject: German news