136 hours of strike: The German Locomotive Drivers' Union (GDL) will stop work for longer than ever before. Almost six full days. The train drivers primarily want to enforce their main demand: 35 instead of 38 hours of work per week - with full wage compensation. The Deutsche Bahn trains will soon be at a standstill. Once again.
The spotlight is not only on the GDL itself, but once again on its boss Claus Weselsky. The native of Saxony has long been an attractive figure for rail travelers (and the Berlin company anyway). He and his relatively small union have been driving Deutsche Bahn forward for many years. Although not for long. After this collective bargaining round, it will be over for him as GDL chairman, as he announced last fall. But until then, the employee boss is letting it rip again.
Weselsky was born in Dresden in 1959 as the youngest of three children in a working-class family. His parents initially worked as “new farmers” and were given expropriated land in the GDR. Both later trained as tram drivers. Weselsky followed in their footsteps: After graduating from the Polytechnic High School, he completed training as a rail vehicle fitter in the mid-1970s and became a locomotive driver for the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Initially as a shunting engine driver, he was later allowed to drive freight and finally passenger and express trains.
He was never a member of the all-powerful SED, something he is still proud of today. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it quickly became clear that Weselsky had political talent: he became involved in the re-established train drivers' union in Pirna near Dresden and became chairman of the local group in 1990. From this point on he quickly made his career. In 1992 he became deputy district chairman and thus a member of the main board. In 2002, the railway released him completely from his union activities. Weselsky came to the Federal Executive Board in Frankfurt am Main as an employee of the collective bargaining department. For two years he was the second man behind chairman Manfred Schell.
In 2008, Weselsky finally replaced him at the top of the GDL, with outstanding support from the members: he was elected to office with 90 percent of the vote. And yet criticism was raised early on - also internally. When the new union leader fired his two deputies because he had clashed with them, his predecessor Schell accused him of an "authoritarian leadership style" and even resigned from his honorary chairmanship of the GDL. Weselsky explained that those fired had mixed professional and private interests.
The “firestarter from Saxony,” as the “Financial Times Deutschland” called him, remained the undisputed leader of the union. Weselsky managed to make the GDL one of the most powerful unions in the country despite its relatively small size. The almost 65-year-old represents just 40,000 members, the rival union EVG has 180,000 organized members - from all railway divisions, while the GDL primarily makes "collective agreements for a special clientele", as Weselsky recently said. Especially for train drivers, and partly also for the on-board staff. All of them are employees who are indispensable for ongoing rail operations.
In any case, his loyalty lies with his colleagues in the driver's cab, which, it seems, is above all else for Weselsky. He resisted the call of the other side of power and big money back in 2007 when he turned down the offer to move to the railway's human resources director.
But he still liked the idea of being an employer. In the summer of 2023, he founded the Fair Train cooperative, to which railway workers can switch and, as Weselsky announced, would receive better conditions. Once employed there, they would in turn be loaned back to Deutsche Bahn. Deutsche Bahn complains that a union acting as a temporary employment agency is a contradiction in terms.
Criticism that he is taking the entire country hostage with the strikes seems to be brushed aside. He is a stroke of luck for the GDL. Chain dog and patron saint in one. Even if many train travelers have often seen this differently. A tabloid printed his cell phone number during a four-day strike in 2014 - dozens of angry rail customers called. Weselsky kept a cool head and simply activated call diversion - to the number of the then railway boss Rüdiger Grube.
While many members of the GDL celebrate him for such an action, train passengers in particular repeatedly accuse him of egocentricity and a lack of willingness to negotiate. It is well known that the bandages with which he fights are tough. You could call him “uncompromising,” even if his job is actually to find those compromises. Weselsky lives from his reputation for being a tough guy.
In the fall, the powerful man, trade unionist and labor activist will not run for the GDL boss election again. He himself probably wants to do everything possible for his train drivers until the end, even if the public only sees excess again. He himself said: "I'm sure that it will be said again: This is Weselsky's last round, and now he wants to make a name for himself again. That would be the third time that this has been pinned on me. But this time I can say: Now "It's really the last time." By the way, his successor is already ready: Mario Reiß, one of his deputies.
Sources: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Hans Böckler Foundation, 24rhein.de