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Is Germany set for more train strikes in the weeks ahead?

A warning strike called by the German train drivers' union this week has raised the spectre of weeks of travel chaos in the run-up to Christmas. So just how close is the union to reaching a deal - and are more strikes on the horizon?

Is Germany set for more train strikes in the weeks ahead?
A notice board at the Munich S-Bahn station Hauptbahnhof informs passengers of the strike. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lukas Barth

Just one round of talks had taken place between Deutsche Bahn and the GDL train drivers’ union when the announcement came: the GDL was calling a national rail strike over two days from Wednesday to Thursday. 

Since rail workers staged their walk-out on Wednesday at 6pm, long-distance, S-Bahn and regional rail services have been paralysed on a national scale.

Though Deutsche Bahn has claimed its emergency operations have run as planned, around 80 percent of long-distance train services were cancelled during the 20-hour strike, with “severe restrictions” around the country.

In some regions, local and regional S-Bahn trains stopped running entirely, the operator announced.

When ordinary service resumes at 6pm on Thursday, many commuters will be wondering whether this is just the start of weeks of disruption on Germany’s rail network. 

READ ALSO: ‘No trains’: Passengers in Germany hit by Deutsche Bahn’s ongoing strike

In the worst-case scenario, this could include strikes over Christmas. 

Are more strikes on the way?

This looks highly likely – though the question is when. 

Unlike its larger counterpart the EVG, the GDL rail union has a reputation for being big and bold when it comes to strike action.

Speaking to DPA on Thursday, union leader Klaus Weselsky refused to rule out further strikes. “I can’t do that at this point in time,” he said. 

At the start of the negotiations over pay and conditions, Weselsky had rejected proposals from Deutsche Bahn and Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) for a “Christmas truce” that would rule out strikes over the festive period.

“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,” he said.  

Though no further strikes have been announced just yet, what’s clear so far is that the mood is turning increasingly sour, with both parties accusing the other of escalating the dispute.

In its first round of negotiations, Deutsche Bahn and the GDL thrashed out a rapid-fire schedule for talks to take place over the next five weeks, with the aim of concluding negotiations before Christmas. 

But on Wednesday evening, the German rail operator cancelled talks with the union that were scheduled for Thursday and Friday, blaming the warning strikes. 

GDL boss Claus Weselsky in Berlin

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

“Either you go on strike or you negotiate. You can’t do both at the same time,” said DB personnel director Martin Seiler.

Hitting back at DB, Weselsky said Deutsche Bahn had forced his hand with their uncompromising negotiating stance.

“I will not be blamed for the fact that we escalate when the other side says: ‘I won’t negotiate with you about weekly working hours and I won’t negotiate with you about collective agreements for dispatchers’,” he told radio station WDR5.

So what happens next?

According to the schedule set out by DB and the GDL, the next round of talks is due to take place on November 23rd and 24th. However, Weselsky has said he is unsure if these are going to happen, telling DPA: “It’s still open.”

The union is currently in the process of renegotiating its collective agreement with Germany’s national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn.

The GDL is demanding a wage increase of at least €555 per month for a period of one year, as well as a 25 percent increase in bonuses for shift work and a tax-free payment of €3,000 to offset inflation. 

READ ALSO: Why travellers in Germany could see rail strikes this winter

Deutsche Bahn has countered this with the offer of an 11 percent pay rise over 32 months, along with a tax-free bonus of €2,850 for workers – an offer Weselsky describes as “too long and too little”.

The real sticking point, however, is the GDL’s demand to reduce its working hours from 38 to 35 for the same amount of pay, which Deutsche Bahn negotiators have ruled out as “unworkable”. 

If the deadlock continues, the threat of unlimited strikes looms on the horizon.

The GDL has even threatened a members ballot on these longer term strikes if they feel the talks are not making progress. 

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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.