Germany’s transport workers stage strike, demanding higher wages

Employees are demanding better pay and working conditions as inflation weakens living standards.

A protestor holds a placard reading 'Nancy (Nancy Feser, German Minister of Interior) give us the money' as people demonstrate in front of 'Landungsbruecken' at the harbour during a nationwide strike called by the German trade union Verdi over a wage dispute in Hamburg, Germany, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer
A protester holds a placard reading, 'Nancy [German Interior Minister Nancy Feser], give us the money!' at a demonstration at Hamburg's harbour during nationwide transport strikes on March 27, 2023 [Fabian Bimmer/Reuters]

Germany’s transport workers are staging one of the largest walkouts in decades as Europe’s biggest economy reels from inflation, which reached 9.3 percent in February.

Germany, which was heavily dependent on Russia for gas before the war in Ukraine, has been particularly hard hit by higher prices as it scrambled for new energy sources. Its inflation rates have exceeded the euro-area average in recent months.

Airports and bus and train stations across Germany were at a standstill on Monday as 24-hour strikes called by the Verdi trade union and railway and transport union EVG got under way.

Terminals were largely deserted as airports, including two of Germany’s largest in Munich and Frankfurt, suspended flights while rail services were cancelled by railway operator Deutsche Bahn.

Striking workers wearing yellow or red high-visibility jackets blew horns and whistles, held up banners and waved flags during protests.

The strikes meant millions of people in Germany had to adapt to a day without regular transport although a few routes remained open.

The Airports Association estimated that 380,000 air passengers were affected. In Frankfurt alone, almost 1,200 flights for 160,000 passengers were cancelled, and stranded travellers slept on benches. In Cologne, the lack of city trains prompted a dash for taxis.

Persistent cost pressures have pushed central banks to a series of interest rate increases. Policymakers have said it is too early to talk of a price-wage spiral.

Verdi is negotiating on behalf of about 2.5 million employees in the public sector, including in public transport and at airports, while EVG represents about 230,000 employees at Deutsche Bahn and bus companies.

In the hours running up to the strikes, both sides dug in their heels with union bosses warning that considerable pay hikes were a “matter of survival” for thousands of workers.

A Deutsche Bahn spokesperson called the strikes “excessive” and “exaggerated”.

‘It’s justified’

Verdi is demanding a 10.5 percent wage increase, which would see pay rising by at least 500 euros ($538) per month, while EVG is asking for a 12 percent raise, or at least 650 euros ($700) extra per month.

Stranded passengers expressed both sympathy and unhappiness about the strikes.

“Yes, it’s justified, but I for one never went on strike in my entire life, and I have been working for more than 40 years,” passenger Lars Boehm said. “At the same time, in France they go on strike all the time about something.”

Sharp wage increases would squeeze the fiscal room for manoeuvre for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, making already factious negotiations over the federal budget more difficult in his three-party coalition.

Employers are warning that higher wages for transport workers would result in increased fares and taxes to make up the difference.

A government spokesperson on Monday said politics should stay out of the wage talks.

EVG Chairman Martin Burkert warned further strikes were possible, including over the Easter holiday.

“We have been dragged along here for too long,” striking worker Christoph Gerschner said. “The big ones benefit and the small ones, who keep everything running, get nothing. People have second or third jobs to make ends meet.”

Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the German central bank had adopted a “more independent perspective”, which allows unions to make fair claims while insisting that businesses need to make fair profits.

Monday’s walkouts are part of waves of disruptive labour strikes in wealthy European countries in recent months, including France and Britain.

Protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms have sparked the worst street violence in years in France.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies