The World From Berlin: 'Fighting Cocks' Pushing Germany Into Railway Chaos

Hartmut Mehdorn, who heads Germany's national railway, evidently can't stand the chairman of the train drivers' union, Manfred Schell. The feeling, apparently, is mutual. That's partly why Germany faces a railway strike this Thursday. Media commentators say it's high time for the men to kiss and make up to avert transport chaos in Europe's biggest economy.

Smiling for the cameras: Deutsche Bahn AG Chief Executive Hartmut Mehdorn (r) and train drivers' union chairman Manfred Schell after fruitless talks last month.
DPA

Smiling for the cameras: Deutsche Bahn AG Chief Executive Hartmut Mehdorn (r) and train drivers' union chairman Manfred Schell after fruitless talks last month.

Germany is bracing for transport chaos at the height of the holiday season after train drivers' union GDL voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike in defense of a 31 percent pay claim and a demand for a new wage contract that separates drivers from the other railway employees.

When the strike begins on Thursday, freight trains will be the first to be targeted, but the work stoppage is expected to spread to passenger trains as well in the following days. German media commentators say the wage dispute has come this far partly because of the personal emnity between the two stubborn adversaries, GDL chairman Manfred Schell and Hartmut Mehdorn, the energetic and outspoken chief executive of rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

Mehdorn has accused the train drivers of trying to "terrorize" the country and tried to halt warning strikes in recent months with a flurry of court injunctions. Schell for his part has called Mehdorn "Rumpelstiltskin" (the fairy tale dwarf character).

German media commentators say public sympathy with the train drivers, who do indeed seem to be badly paid compared to drivers in other European countries, is going to wane rapidly once the strike leaves thousands stranded.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"However this wage dispute ends, one thing is certain: The train engine drivers unfortunately won't get the wage hike they have failed to clinch in previous wage negotiations. Thirty-one percent more pay, or 20 or even 15 -- that won't happen. The stated goal of this strike is to get a separate wage contract for the drivers, but that always means more money. Now is the time for a more realistic demand. Or the engine drivers will very soon not just have the railway against them, but the whole public."

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"This conflict has a personal dimension: Railway chief Mehdorn and train drivers' chief Schell are facing each other like fighting cocks. This could lead to a major strike. The country could come to a standstill on Thursday."

"The railway shouldn't bow to the pressure. Mehdorn has time. The more holidaymakers are stranded on platforms, the angrier they will become. Passengers will become increasingly unsympathetic towards the engine drivers, partly also because they know that they will have to pay for the exaggerated loan demands in form of higher ticket prices further down the line."

Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The GDL with its 30,000 members is one of Germany's smallest trade unions but has more power to disrupt the country than even garbage collectors or pilots."

"Millions of railway users should brace themselves for the worst in Germany in the coming days and even weeks."

"One has to ask whether this dispute is about the interests of rail employees or about massaging egos. Schell is 64 years old and will retire next year. He himself has said he has 'just this one shot left' regarding the wage demand."

"The €2,500 ($3,440) gross salary an experienced train driver earns at most per month isn't generous. But demanding 31 percent more money -- including shorter weekly working hours -- is impudent."

"It's totally unreasonable that Schell isn't prepared to make any compromises. It's the duty of the GDL and the railway employers to sit down and negotiate a deal acceptable to all sides."

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The strike isn't dramatic for the German economy -- it won't leave big traces in the 2007 national accounts. Forecasts that the dispute could cause €500 million in damage each day are absurd."

"The gross domestic product figures don't register discomfort and chaos. The economy won't grind to a halt. Taxis and car hire firms, budget airlines and private railways will keep up passenger transport; private freight rail operators and hauliers will profit in the cargo sector."

-- David Crossland, 3:30 p.m. CET

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