German public service workers stage warning strikes

After two days of warning strikes, ver.di, the union representing federal and municipal workers in Germany, returned to the bargaining table on Thursday for the latest round of negotiations with the German government. On Tuesday, ver.di’s leader Frank Bsriske told striking workers at the Frankfurt airport, “We’re at a crossroads” as the union prepares to hold a strike authorization vote among members if negotiations fail to produce a decent wage increase for Germany’s 2 million public sector workers employed by the federal government and municipalities.

This week, ver.di called two warning strikes that lasted for a short time. On Monday, 80,000 public sector workers in Berlin and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s largest state, walked off the job for a day. Strikers included bus drivers, sanitation workers, kindergarten staff, and some hospital workers.

Tuesday’s action was smaller but more dramatic as workers at the country’s seven largest airports downed tools for periods ranging from nine to five hours. The strikes caused Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, to cancel 450 flights.

Bsriske said that public sector workers moderated their past wage demands to help the country climb out of its economic slump caused by the financial crisis of 2008, but during the last two years, the German economy has picked up steam and that it’s now the right time for public service workers to regain some of that lost ground.

As a sign of the nation’s improving economy, Germany’s Federal Statistics Office reported yesterday that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in March dipped to 6.7 percent, lower than had been expected and the lowest that it has been in 20 years.

Ver.di is demanding a 6.5 percent wage increase, but the government so far is offering only a 3.3 percent increase, 2.1 percent in the first year of the contract and 1.2 percent in the second year.

Bsriske said that considering the billions of euros that the German government gave to banks to bail them out after their risky financial transactions put them at risk of going out of business, the wage increase sought by public sector workers is entirely justified.

The federal government appears unwilling to budge from its initial offer. Interior Minister Hans Peter Friedrich has indicated that the government may ask a mediator to help resolve the dispute. If the talks do go to mediation, the union’s hand is weakened because strikes are illegal while mediation is in progress.

The outcome of the contract talks will have an effect far beyond the public sector. Contracts affecting 9 million private sector workers are set to expire this year, and the final settlement of the public service wage dispute will likely serve as a guideline for wage increases in these contracts.

Companies with contracts expiring this year include Deutsche Telekom, whose workers are also represented by ver.di, and Volkswagen, whose workers are represented by Germany’s largest union IG Metal, which has already announced that it will be seeking a 6.5 percent wage increase in the new contracts it negotiates this year.

As the government inched closer to calling for mediation to resolve the dispute, ver.di members remained defiant. “We’ve shown we’re ready to strike to defend our pay claim and that’s definitely not in the government’s interest,” said Jan Jurczyk, a ver.di spokesperson in Berlin to the Wall Street Journal.

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