Opinion: Why is The S-Bahn on Strike (Again)?

Public transport, in theory at least, is one of Berlin’s strong suits. Unlike the prohibitively expensive Tube network in London or the wildly underdeveloped Metro in Rome, Berlin has a huge network with reasonable fares.  But it won’t have escaped your attention that the S Bahn has been causing grief for a while now. While the north-south tunnel has now reopened after what felt like forever for anyone trying to maintain friendships across the city, we’ve recently been hit by a spate a strikes. And while that can be a proper nuisance for Berliners, there’s been little discussion of why Bahn employees are striking. And for those inclined to write of union action as self-motivated greed, the answer is more knotty than you might imgine-

The GDL (that’s the Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer or the Germanys train drivers‘ union) have been striking on and off since the Mauerfall events in November. At last count, the GDL represented 20,000 train drivers in Germany and has scheduled seven strikes over the last ten months. The reasons for striking are traditional union concern: hours and pay. The GDL are demanding a 5% pay increase and a cut in hours from 39 hours/weekly down to 37 hours/weekly.  But that’s not the whole story.

What’s interesting about the strikes is that union action is fairly rare in Germany, which boasts relatively strong trade union affiliation. Mostly though, union disputes can be resolved without resorting to strikes.  So what stands out about the GDL strikes (other than how busy the buses suddenly are) is how militant the GDL are and their commitment to campaigning not just for their members but also for train conductors and restaurant staff aboard the train. In their refusal to back down on this point, the GDL has escalated their action to full-blown strikes. This isn’t at all common in Germany.

Although the GDL represents 17,000 train drivers (including S Bahn and Deutsche Bahn drivers) the GDL also calls from improvement for the 20,000 auxiliary staff that aren’t under the union’s remit.
As a relatively small union, there have been complaints in about the rise of small unions paralyzing the country’s infrastructure. This has lead in parts to calls for legislation to prevent small unions being able to call strikes, something reminiscent of the nadir of trade unionism in 1980’s Britain. And while a 37 hour working week compares unfavorably to that of other countries (35 hours/week in the UK for example) the real sticking point is the GDL’s demand to represent non-drivers.  From the Bahn’s point of view, doubly the number of union-represented employees looks to be an expensive option, but for those complaining about GDL members’ greed should perhaps reconsider. In demanding better working conditions for non-members, the GDL is breaking with a long tradition in union activity, but this is coming at a high price for anyone reliant on trains in Germany.

The strike ended yesterday, but with no resolution to the issues in sight, there’s no doubt that there’s more strike action on the horizon.  Perhaps it’s time to get a bike?

By Sarah Coughlan
Sarah Coughlan is a Berlin-based British writer, proofreader, editor and book reader. She has lived in Berlin for around three years. She now lives in Wedding with her cat. She’s OK with this.
You can find her at: www.bulletproofed.org where she hides her academic proofreading business.

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