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Germany paralysed by train drivers’ strike

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If this lasts longer than four days, Germany's carmakers, chemical companies and others are going to start hurting.Photograph by Christof Stache — AFP/Getty Images

German Angst about the economy has had more than a touch of déjà vu about it so far this year: problems with Italy’s deficit, France’s stagnation and even Russia’s military are all recurrent themes in German history.

But the country is really breaking new ground this weekend as millions of train users are left stranded by what is set to be the longest strike in the 180 years since locomotion first arrived in Germany.

The GDL union, which represents 19,000 train drivers nationwide and wants to expand its fief to cover ticket inspectors and other rail staff, began action on freight services already late Wednesday, but the full impact of the strike hit Thursday morning, as drivers on suburban and long-distance passenger services also walked off the job.

The rail company Deutsche Bahn AG said only a third of long-distance trains and between 15% and 40% of suburban services were running, forcing hundreds of thousands either to work from home, or take alternative routes to work.

Although a skeleton service is still running, analysts expect the impact on the economy to be severe if it lasts beyond the planned four days. Car companies such as Volkswagen AG, which ship most of their production by rail, say they have made alternative arrangements for the short term.

Deutsche Bahn and the”Grand Coalition” government headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel are now using the law to stop the action. Deutsche Bahn has sought an injunction in a Frankfurt court, while Andrea Nahles, a left-wing firebrand who is now Labor Minister , has drafted a law that would effectively make such strikes illegal. That’s a head-spinning moment for the world’s oldest Social Democratic party.

To get the maximum effect, the strike has been timed to disrupt the planned celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989, and many in the formerly Communist-run eastern Germany (and beyond) are acutely aware that free association and the right to strike were two basic rights that they thought would be guaranteed in the Federal Republic.

The irony is made flesh in the person of GDL leader Claus Weselsky, a native of the east German region of Saxony. Weselsky has attracted increasingly intense and personal attacks from politicians and media with what is, by the ultra-civilized standards of German labor rituals, a brazenly confrontational stance.

The mass-circulation newspaper Bild-Zeitung and BZ published Weselsky’s telephone number (including direct extension) Thursday, encouraging readers to call directly to vent their feelings. Weselsky told the TV channel ARD he’d instructed his secretary to automatically forward all calls to Deutsche Bahn chief executive Rüdiger Grube.

In a more light-hearted vein, meanwhile, car rental firm Sixt AG capitalized on the chaos by running an ad campaign featuring Weselsky as its “employee of the month.”

The strike follows hard on the heels of one by pilots at German flag carrier Deutsche Lufthansa AG, and is the latest in a series of high-impact actions by relatively small unions which are exploiting the relative strength of their position to claw back some of what has been lost in a decade of low pay rises and eroded job security.

But there are, of course, winners too: the biggest are set to be the long-distance bus companies who have already been growing rapidly since Deutsche Bahn’s age-old monopoly on long-distance travel was abolished at the start of last year.

The bus companies already moved 8.2 million passengers last year, claiming 5.9% of the total market for long-distance traffic in Germany and accounting for all the market’s growth. They increased departures on scheduled routes by 50% between January and August, according to the website Fahrtenfuchs.de.