More Train Strikes Threatening The End of Collective Bargaining in Germany?

First it was pilots, then doctors, now Germany's train drivers are breaking ranks to negotiate their own pay deals. As German skilled workers demand wage increases in line with their counterparts abroad, could this signal the end of collective bargaining?

Germany is bracing itself for yet more rail strikes after a series of walkouts crippled the country's railway network and stranded thousands of passengers a few weeks ago. Industrial action is looming during the peak tourist season even though the rail company Deutsche Bahn has already come to an agreement with the majority of its employees. The new strike threat comes from a small but skilled group of workers at the company -- the people who actually drive the trains.

The traindrivers' union, GDL, has opted out of the collective bargaining with the two other unions at the company, following a trend in German industrial relations of skilled workers dumping industry-wide solidarity and striking out on their own.

On Thursday GDL broke off talks with Deutsche Bahn's management after it failed to win salary increases of up to 31 percent for its members. "We must get away from the situation where drivers receive €1,500 euros ($2,075) in monthly net pay," GDL chairman Manfred Schell told a news conference after the talks collapsed. He said there will now be a ballot of the 20,000 union members to decide if strike action will go ahead in August.

Last week two other unions representing 134,000 Deutsche Bahn employees, Transnet and the GDBA, came to an agreement with the company on a 4.5 percent wage hike . The chairman of the Transnet union Norbert Hansen hit out at the DGL stance, saying that while the skills of train drivers and other trained personnel should be taken into account, any better deal their union hammered out would "jeopardize labor relations in the company."

The split in the rail workers is indicative of a trend towards fragmentation in German industrial relations. Traditionally German unions have joined together to agree on wage deals covering an entire region or industry, but in recent years a number of professionals such as doctors and airline pilots have broken ranks and demanded separate wage agreements.

Skilled Professionals Want More Pay

Since the German economy began to stagnate in the late 1990s, many professionals have seen their real wages slide back compared to their colleagues abroad. Now that the German economy is rebounding many employees are looking to up their pay packet. But skilled workers had already started to ditch industry-wide wage deals, which they feel don't go far enough.

In fact the trend already started back in 2001 when Lufhansa was forced to come to a separate wage agreement with the small pilots' union (VC), which represented the 4,200 pilots at the airline. The accord with the union only came after a bitter eight-week dispute, which included two 24-hour strikes.

At the time many other German unions found VC's position to be outrageous because it abandoned the principle of wage solidarity. But the VC pointed to the fact that pilots' wages at other major airlines had far outstripped theirs.

And in 2006 hospital doctors in Germany went on strike to protest the fact that their earnings were far below those doctors in other countries. In fact the relatively poor pay and difficult conditions had led to a exodus of doctors  leaving Germany for the UK, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

One of the doctors' unions, the Margburger Bund, had traditionally joined the Ver.di public sector union when negotiating wage deals, but in 2005 its members voted to opt out of collective bargaining and decided to pursue a separate wage agreement for hospital doctors. The membership of the small union quickly jumped from 15,000 to 96,000. And after three months of disputes the union finally succeeded in reaching its own separate wage deal for hospital doctors.

While Deutsche Bahn is currently sticking to its position that it will only negotiate a single agreement with all employees, it could well be forced to blink before the union does. According to Friday's Süddeutsche Zeitung: "In the end Deutsche Bahn will have to accept what the others also had to accept. That the era of relatively comfortable collective bargaining agreements is over."