Government moves to head off looming rail strike

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The German government moves to head off a looming unlimited strike by train drivers after talks with the state-owned rail company in the eight-month dispute, broke down.

21st December 2007

Berlin (dpa) - The German government moves to head off a looming unlimited strike by train drivers after talks with the state-owned rail company in the eight-month dispute, broke down.

Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee convened a crisis meeting at an undisclosed venue with Hartmut Mehdorn, the chief executive of Deutsche Bahn (DB), and the head of the GDL train drivers union, Manfred Schell.

Tiefensee's move reflected concern at the economic consequences of a strike, which the GDL has warned could start as soon as January 7, and rising political frustration at the inability of management and the union to resolve their differences.

"The politicians must help find a solution," Claudia Kemfert, a transport expert at the DIW, Germany's largest economic research institute, said in Berlin.

The German public was becoming "heartily sick" of the dispute and was returning to the road, Hans-Peter Friedrich, transport spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian (CDU/CSU) parliamentary bloc, told national public radio.

The Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Merkel's broad coalition, and the party with strong traditional links to the unions, also expressed frustration.

The SPD was "strongly against strikes" in the dispute, SPD economics spokesman Rainer Wend told the daily Saarbruecker Zeitung.

Kemfert warned that the economic consequences of an unlimited strike could be dire, pointing to a three-day partial shutdown of goods traffic in mid-November that caused serious disruption, particularly at the port of Hamburg.

"A freight strike leads to chaos very quickly," she said, predicting that the key metals and vehicle-manufacturing sectors would be worst affected.

The 4.8 million daily commuter journeys were also vulnerable, Kemfert told national commercial broadcaster n-tv.

The GDL walked out of talks Thursday, claiming DB was refusing to shift on the key issue of an independent wage and conditions contract for the company's around 20,000 train drivers.

DB promptly withdrew all the pay concessions it had made.

The union, which has repeatedly called its 15,000 members out on limited strikes since July, has refused to budge on the issue of a separate contract.

Many observers have seen the personal animosity between the chief protagonists, Mehdorn, 65, and Schell, 64, as the root cause of the dispute.

Both are seen as abrasive and with little to lose as their careers draw to an end.

DB has said it will accept mediation in the dispute, but the GDL has rejected this out of hand.

DB has struck a deal for 4.5-per-cent increase plus a one-off payment with around 135,000 other rail workers represented by the Transnet and GDBA unions.

It had offered the GDL a bigger increase, but this fell short of the union's demand of more than 10 per cent.

DB is also seeking to ensure that the regular bargaining round is carried out under an over-arching deal involving all three unions, but the GDL is insisting on an entirely separate agreement.

Repeated strikes over the past five months have hit commuters hardest, but also revealed how much damage a stoppage can do to freight services.

DB operates more than 27,000 passenger trains and 4,800 freight trains daily over 34,000 kilometres of track. Tiefensee is currently piloting a controversial part-privatization bill through parliament.


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