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Parked ICE train at Munich Central Station: The strikes could be even harder

Photo: Lennart Preiss / dpa

Even the current strike republic of Germany is still a long way from French conditions.

While in this country an average of fewer than eight working days per 1,000 employees were lost due to labor disputes from 2012 to 2020, in the neighboring country it was almost a hundred.

And yet: The ongoing strikes at Deutsche Bahn, on buses, subways and in air transport show that collective bargaining disputes can also escalate in Germany, and the mood is sometimes testy.

Collective bargaining in Germany is actually now tougher than before, as Hagen Lesch, collective bargaining expert at the German Economic Institute (IW) in Cologne, confirms.

"The collective bargaining disputes last year were tougher than in previous years," he said.

The employer-related IW has been measuring the extent of collective bargaining conflicts in selected industries since 2010 using a points system.

“Since 2010, we have not had a conflict level as high as last year,” says Lesch.

There is still no evaluation for the first quarter of 2024. "But there are indications that we will maintain a similarly high level in the current year as we had last year."

Unions are currently in a strong position

One reason is the high inflation of recent years.

At times, prices rose faster than salaries.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, 2023 saw the first small increase in real wages since 2019 - an increase of 0.1 percent, although one-off inflation compensation bonuses also contributed to this.

Collective bargaining salaries continued to decline.

The unions now went on the offensive to regain purchasing power, says Lesch.

Another reason is the weak economy.

Last year, Germany as a whole already slipped into recession with a decline in economic output of 0.3 percent.

Economists expect the weakness to continue for the time being.

This reduces employers' willingness to make concessions, says IW expert Lesch.

“So we have aggressive unions in an environment where companies tend to tighten their spending pants a little,” he said.

It is naturally more difficult to reach compromises.

In addition, certain unions wanted to gain members through active collective bargaining movements and have already been successful in some cases.

"In this respect, one must also fear that other unions that have previously been more peaceful will also want to try it out."

The train drivers' union GDL can already apply in strikes.

She has again called for a strike at Deutsche Bahn in freight traffic from Wednesday evening and in passenger traffic from Thursday.

It's just the latest in a series of industrial disputes this winter.

The increased number of strikes has recently sparked an intensive debate about possible restrictions on the right to strike.

Social scientist Irene Dingeldey from the Institute for Work and Economics at the University of Bremen points out that the strikes could be even more severe.

“Those would be indefinite strikes and we don’t have them yet,” she said.

There is currently a certain increase in strikes, especially in the transport sector.

»We notice them more because we feel the effects.

And that's why they perhaps seem tougher to us. If, on the other hand, there is a strike in the metal industry, for example, this does not directly affect the average citizen.

Strike is the only form of resistance that workers have to emphasize their demands, said Dingeldey.

"That's part of it - whether we like it or not." The fact that unions are currently showing a certain vehemence is also due to the current labor shortage, which strengthens the negotiating position of employee representatives.

It is unclear which sectors will still be on strike in 2024.

According to the collective bargaining archive of the Economic and Social Sciences Institute (WSI) of the trade union-affiliated Hans Böckler Foundation, collective remuneration agreements agreed by the DGB unions alone will expire between December 2023 and December 2024 for almost twelve million employees.

Collective bargaining will begin in September in the metal and electrical industry, the largest collective bargaining industry with over 3.6 million employees.

The collective agreements for public services at the federal and local levels (2.4 million employees) expire at the end of 2024.