Why travellers in Germany could see rail strikes this winter

Travellers in Germany could see strikes this winter as the German Train Drivers Union (GDL) sits down to negotiate better conditions and wages with Deutsche Bahn.

An S-Bahn train stops at a station in Cologne at night.
An S-Bahn train stops at a station in Cologne at night. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

Train passengers in Germany had to deal with a series of strikes affecting long-distance trains and other services operated by Deutsche Bahn earlier this year due to a row involving the German rail union EVG. 

Now a new set of possible strikes are looming in winter – including over Christmas – as the GDL train drivers’ union kicked off its first round of collective bargaining talks with Deutsche Bahn on Thursday.

A truce on strike action ended at the start of November along with the union’s existing collective agreement, paving the way for more industrial action if union members vote for it. 

And GDL leader Claus Weselsky said he doesn’t want to start with the so-called ‘warning strikes’ and instead wants members to vote on whether they want ‘unlimited strikes’. 

Ahead of the talks, Weselsky had threatened an immediate members’ ballot if the union felt that Deutsche Bahn wasn’t serious about the negotiations.

But on Thursday, after the GDL rejected the rail company’s initial offer, the firebrand union leader revealed that the talks would continue next week.

Deutsche Bahn had offered the union an 11 percent increase in pay over 32 months, along with a €2,850 tax-free bonus to compensate for inflation – and offer that Weselsky dismissed as “too little and too long”. 

The GDL is also not ruling out the possibility of strikes happening over the Christmas holidays. He said Deutsche Bahn had suggested a “Christmas truce” to the union when proposing the negotiation dates.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get compensation for delayed or cancelled trains in Germany

“We rejected that (truce) because we don’t know how things will develop, and because we don’t know how much negotiation we’ll have done by then,” said Weselsky. 

The months-long wage dispute between rival union EVG and Deutsche Bahn was just a few months ago. Twice this year, the railway and transport union paralysed rail traffic across Germany with warning strikes.

An agreement was reached at the end of August after a two-week arbitration process. The result was €410 more per month for workers and an inflation compensation bonus of €2,850 net, among other benefits. 

GDL boss Claus Weselsky in Berlin

GDL boss Claus Weselsky in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

GDL wants 35-hour week for shift workers

Now it is the turn of the smaller union, GDL, which has tended to be far tougher than its larger counterpart in previous negotiations. Among other things, they are demanding at least €555 more per month as well as the inflation compensation payment.

The sticking point of the talks so far, however, is the demand for a reduction of the working week from 38 to 35 hours for shift workers without a proportional reduction in wages.

In the first round of talks, Deutsche Bahn ruled out any decrease in working hours for train drivers. “DB would have to hire 10 per cent more employees just to close these gaps,” it said. “And that with a historically tight labour market.”

However, Weselsky said the reduction in hours could actually attract more workers.

“We have too few train drivers, too few train attendants and now too few train dispatchers,” he said. 

He added that this was not due to demographic change. “Rather, it is the unattractiveness of the professions, the activities that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year in the railway system,” he said.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes to Germany’s €49 ticket you need to know about

The reduction in working hours is therefore “a step forward to increase the attractiveness of the professions and to show that there is recognition from society,” he said. 

But he expects a battle. Weselsky said that he has noticed in other negotiations that employers have been “very reluctant to go along with the reduction in working hours or to tackle the issue at all”.

It comes as Deutsche Bahn has been announcing its new timetable for the end of 2023 and 2024, plus price increases for customers. 

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Where in Germany passengers are most affected by Friday’s public transport strikes

Public transport strikes are to reach their climax on Friday, after a week of local strikes spread across Germany. We explain where passengers are most affected, and why there are climate protests involved.

Where in Germany passengers are most affected by Friday's public transport strikes

Trade union Verdi suggests that collective bargaining for public transportation workers has stalled, which is why they, and other local drivers’ unions, have called warning strikes in several federal states.

Friday’s strikes are expected to have drastic effects for local transportation passengers. According to Verdi, 90,000 employees from more than 130 municipal transportation companies have been called to strike.

But impacts will vary greatly between regions. In many federal states, the warning strike started Friday morning, with buses, trams and subways stopped in many places.

Where are strikes being felt the most this Friday?

Residents of North-Rhine-Westphalia are likely to face significant transportation disruptions, as about one-third of all striking companies are based there. Nearly all of the region’s major public transport companies are on strike, including: KVB (Cologne), Rheinbahn (Düsseldorf), DSW21 (Dortmund), and Stadtwerke Münster and moBiel (Bielefeld).

Additionally, parts of Lower Saxony, Berlin, Brandenburg, Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia are all affected.

READ ALSO: Transport strike – How to navigate Berlin without U-bahn or buses

Buses and trams have also come to a standstill in Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein. A statement from Hamburger Hochbahn (HVV) and the Verkehrsbetriebe Hamburg-Holstein (VHH) warned customers that all buses and trains will remain in depots.

Friday’s walkout is also expected to be felt in Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Bremen.

What transport is still running?

In some places S-Bahn trains or regional buses are still running, especially those that are not operated by municipal companies that are being targeted by workers.

In Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, S-Bahn trains continue to operate. Frankfurt’s city bus company (VGF) also stated on its website that its buses are still expected to run.

Deutsche Bahn’s regional and long-distance trains are running on their usual timetable. So passengers taking longer journeys with DB should not be prevented from travelling.

The state of Bavaria is also free of strikes this week, and in Saarland strikes have reportedly been called off after employers and Verdi managed to reach a new collective agreement on Wednesday.

As reported by Tagesshau, the agreement reached with Saar Municipal Employers’ Association (KAV Saar) provides inflation compensation bonuses of €1,000 as well as “a Saturday supplement and sickness benefit subsidy”, among other things.

Why is the public transportation strike culminating in a climate strike?

Verdi’s demands are primarily concerned with improving the working conditions for transportation workers – for example, by shortening the work week, increasing the number of paid holiday days, or allowing for more sufficient break times.

READ ALSO: ‘No family life’ – A Berlin bus driver explains why public transport workers are striking

But Verdi has gained the support from the climate group Fridays For Future (FFF), which is joining with Verdi organisers to lead demonstrations in around 100 cities on Friday. 

“Whether we live in the city or in the countryside, we all need a public transport system that we can rely on. Without a socially just transport turnaround, there can be no effective climate protection,” Fridays for Future explained in a statement on their website.

They added that, “There are too few bus drivers because the working conditions are poor,” which is why they are joining forces to ensure a “livable future with reliable public transport”.

Mathias Kurreck, a BVG bus driver and Verdi union member told The Local: “If we don’t manage to support the transport transition now, we will not have local transport in the future that can convince people to switch from cars.”

He added that “We have a strong partner with Fridays for Future and we drive together,” referencing the movement’s campaign slogan ‘Wir Fahren Zusammen’.

“If you don’t have any plans on March 1st, 2024, you are warmly invited to come by to show your support for public transport, solidarity and unity,” he said.