Finally some damage to the national economy! -Wildcat

Wildcat's analysis of the German railway strikes in autumn and winter 2007, and interview with striking train drivers.

Submitted by Khawaga on December 26, 2009

"I assume that once the next strike is on our workmates will form discussion groups in order to debate about the 'here and now'. This is how it was during the last strike, colleagues debated a lot and could not stop talking. There wasn't a moment when you were alone with your thoughts for more than five minutes."
- A striking commuter train driver


There have been several short strikes on the German railways in autumn and winter 2007. For the first time in a long while the »public« had to debate about a nation-wide strike, the aims, the impact on »the national economy«, the significance for other workers. First the strike only hit the commuter trains, because under the pressure from the industry the labour court had declared strikes in the freight department as illegal. This court decision was withdrawn in the last days of the strike. The GDL union only represents the train crews and train drivers. During negotiations the GDL agreed on excluding the train crews from the dispute. The main official demand of the GDL is a collective contract for train drivers, independently of the bigger union Transnet1 , which organises 80 per cent of the total railway work-force. Within the German unions the GDL are seen as separatists who endanger »union unity«. The main motivation for the train drivers to go on strike are the working conditions, they want a 30 per cent wage hike and to fight back against the flexibilisation of working times.

Now, in December 2007 the train drivers' strike has been interrupted for negotiations. Since summer 2007 the strike has gained increasing popularity by demonstrating how much influence workers' power in a core sector can have. They seemed to be able to set boundaries to the arrogant Mehdorns, Piechs and Ackermanns (German Railways, VW and Deutsche Bank bosses). But more important is the fact that finally, after a long time, a group of workers managed to obtain significant improvements by going on strike: real wage increases and the roll back of flexibilisation. In this way the train drivers acted also on behalf of many other workers.

This is why the industrial action of the GDL (Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokführer – Union of German Train Drivers) was popular. We got to know about this popularity not only from public opinion-polls, but also while distributing leaflets to the commuters2

Cologne, 13th of October 2007
It was really impressive to see how many are in favour of the strike, which is something I did not expect. Some people asked whether the leaflet was against or in favour of the strike and only took it once they were assured that it was supporting the strike.: despite the cheap propaganda of the media, despite the crowded subway-trains and the increasing delays the attitude towards the strike became ever more positive during the culmination of the conflict in mid-November. The first signs of resistance against the worsening new working standards have appeared. These new standards had been enforced by fragmenting the work-force on a company level and had become the pillars of the recent economic boom in Germany.

The strike of the train drivers could have become an ignition spark, but the enormous potential of this struggle has not been realised. The GDL has lead the strikes in a rather defensive and extremely hesitant manner. Despite the GDL attitude no independent initiatives evolved, no independent strikes broke out. The trust of the train drivers in the organisation GDL is not based on professional pride, but it does conceal an obvious question: How can a completely flexibilised workforce – where everyone starts and finishes work at different times, where everyone works in different places – find a space for common debate and actions? Apart from the time when the strike was on and apart from the scattered strike offices there was no space for general assemblies – neither for the train drivers nor for the train crew nor for the rest of the railway work-force.

Only as late as during the last days of the dispute we succeeded to write something up – during the first months of the struggle we hardly managed to get in touch with active workers. Given their power of pushing things through against the employers by merely laying down tools, they did not seem to need public attention. Only during the recent longer strikes the railway workers started to show themselves in public. In this way we got some first hand impressions and were able to interview two workmates on the 6th of December 2007. First a collection of information gathered during conversations with workers in different towns, from the Eisenbahnforum (a train drivers' web-blog) and other sources.


"Why the hell all this empty talk about unity [referring to the criticism of Transnet and other DGB unions against the GDL's pursuit of their own collective contract]?! There hasn't been any unity for a long time. I, as a civil servant, earn about 1000 Euro more per month. So far no one got worked up about this division."
- A civil servant/railway worker on the freight terminal in Cologne, 8th of November 2007

In 1994 the national railway company was transformed into a public limited company. Since then the company has been fragmented into 200 different subsidiaries and uncountable sub-departments (the train crews are affiliated to 360 different independent EVUs – Eisenbahnverkehrsunternehmen – railway transport companies). This outsourcing process had a devastating impact on wages and working conditions. While productivity increased by 180 per cent, the labour cost was reduced by 28 per cent: the railway management cut nearly every second job, in total about 150,000 within ten years. Currently the railway maintains about 100 different collective contracts in different sectors and departments. Although the union Transnet boasts about the fact that they are the only union which has managed to overcome the division in collective contracts for East and West Germany, the main division within any represented professional group still remains the east/west-gap: this is because the former East German workers are not civil servants, unlike many workers in the West, who joined the railways before privatisation. Many former »Reichsbahner« (eastern German railway workers) now work in the west of Germany, which means the need for a second home or long hours of commuting in order to maintain social relationships. The demand for a 31 per cent wage hike which was put forward by the GDL aims at an equalisation of wages of civil servants and »normal« employees, and would thereby also result in a regional equalisation. The GDL left the joint collective bargaining board of the unions Transnet and GDBA when he board wanted to enforce regional differences within the collective contracts. The fragmentation of the general collective contract driven forward by Transnet is one reason for why the GDL transformed from a »professional union« into a »sector union«.

Working hours and intensification of work

"It is a fact that the job would be less stressful if the physical strain was reduced, if the rationalisation process didn't squeeze us till the pips squeak."
(quote from Eisenbahnforum – www.

While most of the ground workers of the railways have fixed shift-times, the workers on the trains have to put up with very flexible working hours. Those with a fixed schedule know their shifts three months in advance at least, but the so-called 'Rollers' (Rollierer) do not have a shift schedule, and they only know their days off. »In some cases I only get one day notice, they tell me only one day in advance when and where I have to work«. A shift can start and finish at any time during the day. Between the shifts there has to be an eleven hour break, but this break can be reduced to nine hours between two subsequent shifts. This can result in a backward-rolling shift schedule, which is a terrible strain. If there is a train delay the rule allows shifts up to fourteen hours long. In the freight department the time table is not as fixed as in the passenger transportation, so even »fixed shifts« can be changed with short notice.

Due to the railways being extremely understaffed the shift times and the annual working hours increase, over-time cannot be taken as time off later on. There is no replacement in case you have to go to the loo during a long shift. Tasks like client information or »delay management« are added to the normal work load. This fact messes up your official breaks. The irregular working times have an impact on the collectivity amongst the workers, only by chance will you meet a colleague during your break. The employer aggravates the stress by further supervisory controls, e.g. undertaken by controllers disguised as passengers. »They will always find something in order to give you an official warning«. At the same time the infrastructure provided for the workforce is going down the drain: a lot of stations do not provide a proper room for breaks, but a "filthy shack".
There aren't any less stressful workplaces for older or ill workers anymore. While these lousy conditions became a strong driving force and motivation for the train drivers' struggle, the GDL uses these conditions as part of the negotiation package.

"We got things moving quite a bit"

Interview with striking train drivers:

Kai drives freight trains for Railion, from Berlin to the rest of Germany,
Rolf drives commuter trains in Berlin.
Both are members of the GDL, without an official role

The GDL agreed on a voluntary renunciation of further strike action till the end of January 2008. How do you and your mates react to that move?

Kai: Most of our workmates are not aware of the fact that it is 'voluntary', they do not know that from a legal point of view we can continue striking.

Rolf: This is the unwritten code of conduct of the west-German union officials: »We never went on strike during negotiations«. As soon as you speak to our workmates the general mood becomes obvious: »What?! Voluntary? We don't need nothing voluntary, we have to continue building up pressure«.

Here in Berlin most of you are "Ossis" [east-Germans]...

Kai: This is mainly due to the fact that we don't have any civil servants here. The east is not more combative than the west. But the old rusty structures do not exist, the GDL is newer and fresher over here. The Transnet is still seen as the follower organisation of the FDGB [east-German union under real-socialism]. The train drivers had the alternative to join the GDL, not many had this alternative.

The GDL officials often seemed over-stretched with the task of leading the strike. You both did a lot of organising during the last weeks. How do your workmates relate to you now?

Rolf: We nevertheless belong to the GDL, we are supporters, we give inspiration, we question the given. But we got things moving, not only within the GDL, mainly amongst our workmates. We still have to understand it all.

Kai: We have been moving around a lot, we talked to many colleagues. They notice: »These guys are active, we can ask them about things«. Compared to the union officials we have got an advantage: They get orders from the leadership and pressure from the rank-and-file, they always have to weigh things. We are no bridging elements between the union board and the actual unionists, we are able to act more freely. Only the GDL can cause us trouble, in situations where they think we are too critical. We want the rank-and-file structure to grow, we want to activate the many minds amongst us.

Rolf: This doesn't mean that we have to dissolve the GDL, but that the old way of thinking – that a union has to work this or that way – has to stop.

Are you planning on running for official positions within the union yourselves?

Rolf: Nope, we would lose energy. I notice that when I see the union officials and how much energy the structure demands. Some of them are deliberately put into certain positions or given certain tasks in order to prevent them from getting active in »a critical way«. It is more important to think critically and actively than to become a small follower.

Looking back, what do you think went well during the last few weeks?

Kai: The moment of starting the struggle was well chosen. The list of demands got the full support of our workmates. Two, three years ago the atmosphere was different, now the people are aware of the fact that we are understaffed and that their labour power is needed!

Rolf: The other aspect is the pressure from the employer. More and more colleagues had to put up with wage restrictions and worsening of the working times. Many older mates – some of them used to drive steam engines – suffer due to the massive de-skilling of their work. And, given the actual working conditions the announcements of the company management, like those of Mrs. Suckale, were perceived like a punch in the face, they escalated things.

What was not so good or what do you have do better next time?

Kai: We should have trained people: how to you organise a strike, which arguments can I use, what kind of rights do I have, how can I act towards the station management? At the beginning of the strike some leaflets have been distributed, but that's not a proper strike preparation.

Rolf: If all that had been organised better, then us – the activists – would not have been necessary, we would only have contributed our bit. We only emerged due to the limitations and flaws relating to the organising process, the information or planning...

What lead up to the demonstration to the Berlin main station and to the company DB-tower on the 15th of November?

Rolf: During the strike our workmates always criticised the fact that nothing happened. Due to the companies' legal order to stay away from the station we were not even allowed to be present there. This is how the idea to start a demonstration came up. Then the long 48-hours strike happened, but within the GDL no action, no nothing was organised. On the previous day there had been much commotion in the union local, the idea of a demo had probably entered one ear of the officials and gone out the other. Then luck was on our side, one of us answered the phone, the TV-channel SAT1 was looking for striking railway workers for a program. Someone answered: »Tomorrow, 9 a.m. at the main station«. The decision was made. Someone got informed: legal conditions for the demonstration, registration. At 3 p.m. our workmates in the strike office got the news: »Tomorrow at 8 a.m. we will walk out and start a demo« – »Wicked! Great!«. But then our union local leader got to know about it: »What, how, but..., but...«. But things were on their way already, our workmates and the media were informed, one guy got the flag and off we went.

Only commuter train drivers took part. On Friday active workers from several other union locals met. How did that happen?

Rolf: It happened from within the struggle itself. You get to know about each other, you start discussing things, you share certain positions, this is how a critical mass builds up. On Friday we (the commuter train drivers) watched the strike documentary on the strike of French railway workers in 1995, it was screened three or four times and the folks were enthused: »Damn, why don't we do it that way?« They wanted to leave the union local in order to do something, but no GDL union official was around. But now we had enough experience ourselves: »No probs, here are the strike jackets, just get into the car and get some flyers, stop talking, start moving«. Everyone hit the road. Then people returned at some point, some with a big grin on their faces some with less big grins, depending on their experiences they had had outside. At least they did not hide anymore and did something themselves, showed up. At this point things were already happening in parallel, we heard about the union local at the main station, they did actions themselves, but things were not coordinated. »We have to get things together«, we thought. On the very same Friday some of us drove from train drivers' break-room to break-room and tried to find people in order to plan a common action next time. Unfortunately there has been no strike since then...

Kai: But the struggle is not over. The employer tries to increase profits and to cut wages, we can not rest on our laurels. It is always great to gain something, but it will continue.

  • 1The unions:
    The GDL is much smaller than Transnet and the GDBA (35,000 members / 270,000 members / 65,000 members). About 80 per cent of the GDL members are train drivers. The GDL is said to be the oldest German union and represents the majority of train drivers at the Deutsche Bahn and the private railway companies. During the strike 200 workers joined the GDL as new members, and this was only amongst the commuter train drivers. In Munich loads of tram drivers joined the GDL recently. Most of the train crew is organised by Transnet and GDBA, this is why the train stewards, the restaurant workers, the train technicians, the train cleaners are excluded from the future bargaining results, although many of them have joined the strike.
    There are four union locals of the GDL in Berlin, so-called OG's (Ortsgruppen): OG for commuter trains (S-Bahnen), OG for the main station (most of them long-distance train workers), OG for Pankow (most of the freight train workers) and OG-Schöneweide (mainly short-distance train workers).
  • 2The leafleting
    Berlin, 12th of October 2007
    The leaflets went like hot cakes. If people gave you feedback, it was rather positive. I had two discussions with people who thought the strike and wage demands were OK, but who were angry about the fact that the commuters have to suffer. One woman said »They should do something spectacular, maybe punch Mehdorn in his gob or do it like in France: go on strike for real«.