Rail strikes hit Germany for second time in a week


BERLIN — German commuters struggled with disruptions for the second time in a week Thursday when train drivers staged a nine-hour strike to back pay demands, but German railways said their protest was running out of steam.

The drivers’ union GDL stopped regional services at 2 a.m. (midnight GMT), intensifying a dispute with rail operator Deutsche Bahn that started in July. The strike ended at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) and rail traffic was back to normal by mid-afternoon.

The union said in a statement that there were no plans for strikes on Friday or at the weekend. Any strike plans for next week would be announced on Sunday.

Deutsche Bahn board member Karl-Friedrich Rausch said the impact of the strikes, limited to local rails and not affecting inter-city lines, was diminishing as commuters made alternate plans and a skeleton service was maintained.

He also said that there was confusion about who is in charge of the union after GDL union leader Manfred Schell suddenly went on a three-week leave for medical treatment.

“It’s a difficult situation for us right now because we don’t know who our negotiating partner is,” Rausch told a news conference, referring to Schell’s leave of absence. “We urge the union to return to the negotiating table with us.”

Guenther Kinscher, deputy chairman of the GDL, dismissed suggestions Schell went on holiday in the midst of the strike.

“A leave for medical care is not a holiday, it was absolutely necessary,” Kinscher told ZDF television. “But you can be assured the union leadership is still able to function. It’s up to the railways to end the strike with a better offer.”

As the morning rush hour got under way, only about half the regional and urban “S-Bahn” commuter trains were in service across the country, Rausch said. Roads were clogged with heavy car traffic.

Transport workers in France were also striking on Thursday. GDL issued a joint statement with its French counterpart FGAAC justifying both the GDL’s wage demands and the FGAAC’s refusal to allow its pension privileges to be scrapped. Deutsche Bahn made the drivers a fifth pay offer on Monday, including a one-off payment of 2,000 euros (US$2,837) and a rise in monthly wages of up to 10 percent. The GDL rejected that.

A Forsa institute opinion poll found public support for the union falling to 43 percent from over 50 percent two weeks ago.

Katrin Naht, a 40-year-old engineer in Berlin, had little sympathy for GDL’s demands which she said were excessive.

“I don’t understand,” she said at a commuter station in Berlin. “I have to go to work too.”

The 34,000-member GDL is also seeking a separate contract to set train drivers apart from the other 195,000 rail staff, who agreed to a 4.5 percent pay rise in July. Deutsche Bahn wants to keep all its workers under a single sector-wide agreement.