Transport: GDL members vote for indefinite railway strikes

Shortly before the holidays, the German Locomotive Drivers' Union makes it unmistakably clear: The new year will probably start uncomfortably on the rails.

Transport: GDL members vote for indefinite railway strikes

Shortly before the holidays, the German Locomotive Drivers' Union makes it unmistakably clear: The new year will probably start uncomfortably on the rails. A clear majority of union members voted in favor of longer labor disputes in a strike vote that ended on Tuesday. This means that indefinite strikes are now possible.

There was little doubt when the count began in the morning; late in the afternoon, union leader Claus Weselsky made it clear: "The members want strikes." Passengers were warned that the previous warning strikes had only been preliminary skirmishes: "What's coming now will be stronger, longer and harder for the customers."

GDL boss now has a free hand

With the strike vote, GDL boss Claus Weselsky has free rein to strike the railway for several days in the new year. The GDL boss avoided specific dates or a possible duration. But he doesn't want to go on strike indefinitely at first, he said in Frankfurt. But Weselsky has already announced that passengers will have to be prepared for further labor disputes in January.

The union renewed its promise not to call for industrial action until January 7th. After that, the “Christmas peace” ends in the ongoing collective bargaining dispute. You don't necessarily have to go on strike, explained the GDL boss and referred to rail competitors who are willing to negotiate. So far, no signals have come from Deutsche Bahn.

Record result in ballot

At the railway and the railway company Transdev, 97 percent of participating members voted for strikes, a record result, according to union information. According to the statutes, 75 percent approval was required for indefinite strikes. This is the only way to ensure that a broad majority of members support the union leadership's strategy. According to Weselsky, voter turnout was more than 70 percent.

The GDL has already called for a strike twice in the current tariff dispute at the railway - once for 20 and once for 24 hours. Both warning strikes resulted in extensive restrictions on long-distance and regional transport, although these varied greatly depending on the region. If there are longer strikes now, the GDL will announce them 48 hours before they start, said Weselsky.

There have been warning strikes on the railways four times this year. Before the GDL, she negotiated for months with the larger railway and transport union (EVG), which competes with the GDL for members in the federally owned group. The railway even had to completely stop long-distance traffic twice. This has not been the case with the GDL so far.

Deutsche Bahn relies on emergency timetables

Even with the upcoming labor disputes, the railway is confident that it will be able to maintain at least a basic offer. “We are prepared for possible strike scenarios,” the federally owned company announced on the evening after the announcement of the ballot results. “An emergency timetable has proven effective in regional and long-distance transport,” it said. "This includes around 20 percent of the usual timetable for long-distance transport. We have also developed appropriate emergency timetables locally for regional and S-Bahn transport."

The GDL and Deutsche Bahn have only been negotiating in the current collective bargaining dispute since the beginning of November, but both collective bargaining parties are already at an impasse. After the second round, Weselsky declared the negotiations had failed. At rail competitor Transdev, with whom the GDL is also wrestling over new tariffs, negotiations also collapsed a few weeks later.

The sticking point is the working hours

A central sticking point in the conflict at both companies is the GDL's demand for a reduction in weekly working hours for shift workers with full pay. The union wants to achieve a reduction from 38 to 35 hours. The railway considers this to be unachievable, among other things in view of the shortage of skilled workers. In addition, the union is demanding, among other things, 555 euros more per month as well as a tax- and duty-free inflation compensation bonus. The railway has already promised, among other things, eleven percent more, with a term of 32 months.

Just a few days ago, the GDL reached such an arrangement in negotiations with another railway company, the Italian state railway subsidiary Netinera. The 35-hour week for shift workers will be gradually introduced there from January 1, 2025. Netinera is significantly smaller than Deutsche Bahn and employs far fewer people in Germany. According to Weselsky, the GDL wants to enforce the Netinera result as a model throughout the entire industry. “We are committed to achieving comparable deals in the market,” he said. "We won't let up."

Strikes that last for days cannot be ruled out

In previous collective bargaining rounds, strikes lasting several days were not uncommon. The longest GDL strike to date on the railway took place in May 2015 with 127 hours (5 days plus 7 hours) in passenger transport and 138 strike hours (5 days plus 18 hours) in freight transport. In 2021, the GDL went on strike for around five days.

It remains to be seen whether the GDL will immediately resume the collective bargaining dispute with such a long industrial dispute after the Christmas truce. The union has already surprised several times with its measures in the ongoing collective bargaining dispute and shown that it is not sticking to any script. “We are so responsible that we will not strike forever,” Weselsky said recently. But there won't be any more 24-hour strikes.