Ausgabe 32/2007

SPIEGEL Interview with Deutsche Bahn CEO Hartmut Mehdorn 'We Refuse To Be Blackmailed'

Hartmut Mehdorn, the man in charge of Germany's restive train service, talks to SPIEGEL about privatizing the nation's rail network -- and a potentially crippling strike by locomotive engineers looming this Wednesday.

Hartmut Mehdorn, the CEO of Germany's soon-to-be privatized railway service Deutsche Bahn, says the strike is the work of "a small group of trade union functionaries."

Hartmut Mehdorn, the CEO of Germany's soon-to-be privatized railway service Deutsche Bahn, says the strike is the work of "a small group of trade union functionaries."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Mehdorn, you have just celebrated your 65th birthday. At your age, other managers retire or opt for a laid-back post on the board of directors. Are you the sort of boss who can't let go?

Mehdorn: (laughs) Not at all, I'm good at letting go. But I also like to follow things through. And since my board of directors took the view that the privatization of Deutsche Bahn, which has been underway since 1994, is progressing well but not yet fully accomplished, I keep going. Besides: You're only as old as you feel. And I don't feel at all like I'm 65.

SPIEGEL: The Union of Locomotive Drivers (known by its German initials, GDL) is preparing a strike under GDL leader Manfred Schell. They are threatening to bring the entire country to a halt. How great could the damage be?

Mehdorn: Our customers are already unsettled by the impending labor showdown. We're already losing revenue in the millions every day. A small group of trade union functionaries has seduced its members with illusory demands and is trying to create a split within Deutsche Bahn's workforce. The things that are happening here have crossed the limits of what is tolerable.

SPIEGEL: The locomotive drivers are demanding 31 percent more money and their own union wage contract. You have rejected both demands. Can the strikes be prevented?

Mehdorn: The demands are ludicrous. That will not happen. The locomotive drivers' union wants to compel us to agree to 31 percent even as it reaches agreements of two or three percent with our competitors. That's arbitrary. We will not put everything at risk just because of a few functionaries.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean you are no longer prepared to conduct talks?

Mehdorn: I am. We presented the trade union with a new and improved offer as recently as Friday and suggested to the head of GDL that he negotiate with us. Instead of calmly evaluating our offer, the GDL promptly rejected it. Such stubbornness is absolutely irresponsible.

SPIEGEL: Will you sue the trade union for damages in the event of a strike?

Mehdorn: We will demand damages for all strikes that violate the law. If Deutsche Bahn suffers losses in the millions due to illegal actions, then we will want compensation. In the end, though, the courts will decide.

SPIEGEL: Should striking locomotive drivers expect disciplinary measures?

Mehdorn: A strike does not mean that industrial safety can be violated. Stopping a train between stations in the middle of an open stretch of track -- which some locomotive drivers did during the recent warning strikes -- endangers everyone. If another train comes up from behind, serious accidents can result. We will hold locomotive drivers who act irresponsibly to account, and suspend them from work immediately. This has been done in one case already. The safety of train travel is sacred, and takes priority over strikes.

SPIEGEL: Even a small group of striking locomotive drivers can largely bring rail traffic to a halt. What can you do to prevent that?

Mehdorn: Well, not all locomotive drivers are organized in the trade union that's planning the current labor showdown. (Some count as civil servants, and) civil servants are not allowed to strike. This is why I expect only a third of all locomotive drivers to even be available for the strike. We must prepare for that, unfortunately. But we refuse to be blackmailed.

SPIEGEL: What is your plan?

Mehdorn: We will try to arrange our service schedules around the locomotive drivers who are prepared to strike. If they're not on the job, they can't strike. We will also start a special training program for people within the company and outside it, which will provide us with additional train personnel as quickly as possible. If the union strikes despite our new offer, and despite our efforts to reach an agreement, we will have to look around for alternatives.

SPIEGEL: You plan to fire the striking locomotive drivers?

Mehdorn: All our employees, including the locomotive drivers, enjoy layoff protection until 2010. So, no -- we want to negotiate. We've made offers. But what can we do against a union functionary who has promised this effort will be the "last shot" (of his career)?

SPIEGEL: Honestly, though: You would be on strike yourself if you were a locomotive driver earning €2,000 ($2,765) per month while bearing responsibility for 400 passengers per shift, chauffeuring them across Germany at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). Wouldn't you?

Mehdorn: On average, we pay €33,000 ($45,620) a year before taxes. Locomotive drivers working for our competitors earn as much as 25 percent less. And the responsibility borne by those in our control center or in maintenance is no less heavy than the locomotive drivers'. Remember, we compete with highway traffic and other train services, which means we can't afford astronomical wage settlements.

SPIEGEL: But in a crisis, the man in the driver's cab has to make the decisions.

Mehdorn: All employees of Deutsche Bahn have their place within a single chain of responsibility. Everyone depends on the others to do his or her job. No one is better or worse. We won't let anyone touch the principle of a unified system of wage settlements -- not even the head of GDL, who thinks he has to initiate a completely unnecessary showdown just before his retirement -- during summer-holiday season -- and make all our customers nervous.


© DER SPIEGEL 32/2007
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