German transport suffers from labour unrest

Strikes appear to have become a recurring feature of the German transport economy over the past couple of years. The ‘industrial action’ this week is a strike by train drivers which has severely restricted all services, starting with freight services, across the Deutsche Bahn network.

The strike has been organised by the GDL trade union which is demanding a 5% pay increase and a reduction in hours, as well as a wider role in negotiations beyond the interests of the train drivers which it has traditionally represented. The union has already held nine other strikes over the past year. The latest is expected to last three-days with freight services hit from the 19/05/2015 and passenger services from the 20/05/2015.

The Deutsche Bahn drivers’ action follows on from unrest at Deutsche Post earlier in the month. The company has seen members of the Verdi trade union resisting its attempts to re-orientate parcels operations towards a more decentralised structure. The crucial point for the trade unions is that this restructure will include regional variations in pay to the detriment of certain employees’ wages.

A further high-profile and long-running series of strikes are those held by the pilots of Lufthansa, who are protesting at the airlines’ increasing use of lower-cost subsidiaries in the UK to provide services and thus reduce the need for German pilots. The airline protests that its Lufthansa pilots six figure salaries are economically unsustainable. The two sides are in negotiations and the pilots union have ruled-out further action until July. The last strike was in March.

The accepted wisdom is that Germany has seen a breakdown in the uniform structure of ‘collective bargaining’ between large unions and companies or groups of companies. Changes in labour regulations have enabled smaller unions to interrupt wider negotiations. However, both the Lufthansa and Deutsche Post examples are influenced by changes in market structures which in turn demand new ways of working. In the case of Lufthansa it is foreign competition with a lower cost base that is driving change. Perhaps Germany’s labour problems are as much to do with changing competitive environments as the politics of trade unions.