- - Sunday, June 21, 2015

BERLIN — An unprecedented wave of strikes in Germany this year, fueled in part by an upcoming law to revamp labor-employer relations, is undermining the country’s global reputation for order and efficiency, while putting new stress on Germany’s much-praised model of cooperation between labor, business and the state.

From planes to trains to mail and even ATMs — almost every aspect of public life has been interrupted as train operators, airplane pilots, nursery school teachers and postal workers have walked off the job, sometimes for weeks at a time.

According to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, the German economy lost a total of 350,000 workers’ days to strikes between January and May at an estimated cost to the economy of more than $560 million.

The dramatic upswing in labor unrest reflects how workers want a bigger share of Germany’s prosperity. Unlike most of Europe, where economies are stagnant, the country has enjoyed vigorous economic growth in recent years, fueled in large part by a booming export sector.

“Every single one of us has contributed to where the company is today,” said parcel carrier Rene Lubasch, a 16-year veteran of Deutsche Post who has been on strike since June 9. “The volume of packages we deliver has gone up by 28 percent. But we haven’t received extra manpower, better work conditions or more pay.”

But the strikes also have a clear political component, say analysts. Union leaders fear a new law from the coalition government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take effect July 1 will undermine their power, so they are taking action to cement their influence.

The law would require all unions in a company to adopt contracts negotiated by the biggest union among them. The “one company, one collective agreement” approach was traditional in Germany until 2010, when a doctors’ union brought the issue to court and won a case that allowed even the smallest unions to bargain with managers for a separate contract.

Pushed hard by Labor Minister Andrea Nahles, a leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party in Mrs. Merkel’s government, the measure carries the key implication that German courts could now step in to forbid strikes by smaller unions that have been proven most disruptive in recent months.

German officials argue new rules will simplify labor negotiations and put more Germans to work.

“It should only apply when two unions represent the same group of employees in one and the same operation and want to negotiate different contract terms for them,” said German Labor Ministry spokesperson Dominik Ehrentraut.

But many labor leaders disagree, however, saying the change marks a direct threat to their power.

“Our strikes were a targeted and intentional provocation against this law, and to preserve trade unions in Germany,” said Claus Weselsky, leader of the GdL train operators’ union, referring to his nine multiday strikes over the past eight months. “If the law isn’t overturned, it will destroy the GdL as well as other unions. The government has enacted a law that has targeted unions not just to weaken them, but to wipe them out.”

In the case of Germany’s national railway, two competing unions represent workers. The GdL is the smaller one, with 34,000 members. After July 1 it would be forced to defer to its larger rival union in collective bargaining, the EGV, which has around 100,000 members.

Deutsche Bahn spokesperson Dagmar Kaiser blames turf wars between the two unions — not the new law — for the disruptive strikes that have cost the railway around $338 million. The German government is Deutsche Bahn’s largest shareholder.

“Until last summer, the two railway unions split professions between themselves: The GdL represented train operators, and the EVG mostly represented train conductors and engineers,” Deutsche Bahn spokesperson Dagmar Kaiser explained. “But now they’re in an all-out power struggle with each other to negotiate for the same professional group. That’s the difference [with] how things were before.”

Mixed bag for business

A return to stable, single-union dominance should be music to business’ ears, said labor attorney Martin Nebeling of Bird & Bird, a Dusseldorf law firm, greatly streamlining the collective bargaining process.

“It is designed to make life easier and smoother for employers by only obliging them to negotiate agreements with one union,” Mr. Nebeling said.

But the lawyer cautioned that the corporate bosses shouldn’t be too optimistic.

There is a good chance Germany’s top constitutional court might strike down the new law too, said Mr. Nebeling. The consensus in the German legal community is that the law’s restrictions run contrary to the right to collective bargaining and striking in the German constitution.

“The new system says, ‘OK, we accept that principle, but if there is still one collective bargaining agreement and there is a big trade union, then people in a smaller union won’t have [the] right to negotiate their own,’” said Mr. Nebeling. “Their right to [exercise] their collective right will from now on be limited.”

Even big unions are wary of the new rule, said Jan Jurczyk, a spokesman for the United Services Union, with 2.2 million members who include nursery teachers, media workers and 1,000 other professions. Backers of the law could make one think German unions are dedicated to destroying their country’s economy. That’s not true, he said.

“This is a completely misguided proposal,” said Mr. Jurczyk, who added that the union is considering filing its own appeal against the law despite standing to benefit from less competition. “It’s a question of political credibility for us. Competing unions are currently the exception and not the rule.”

Contrary to the law’s intended purpose of bringing stability to German labor relations, concern is growing that aggression and labor strife will increase.

Compared to their European counterparts, Germany’s 7.4 million trade union members strike relatively infrequently, according to the German national statistics office. Between 2005 and 2012, Germany lost, on average, 16 days per 1,000 workers to strikes. By contrast, France lost a whopping 139 days and Denmark lost 117. The United States lost around 10 days.

Karl Brenke, a labor market analyst at the German Institute for Economic Research, said that the high visibility of recent strikes makes it feel as if labor relations in Germany are worse than they really are.

“When car manufacturers went on strike before, no one noticed,” he said. “If the railway goes on strike nowadays, you notice it more because people depend on the railway.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide