Germans grapple with train strike, jobless pay

BERLIN — Among the issues grabbing the headlines in Germany these days are a big train strike and Social Democratic Party infighting over jobless insurance.

On Oct. 12, suburban and municipal railway workers in the big German cities went out on a one-day strike against Deutsche Bahn, the railway company, upsetting much of the economy. The primary issue is pay.

Most people seem to agree that the locomotive engineers are miserably underpaid, especially in view of their great responsibility. Their union, the GDL, which represents 80 percent of the country’s 20,000 train drivers, has demanded a 31 percent wage hike.

But some time ago the train drivers’ union split off from the main railroad union, Transnet, because its claimed its members were not getting fair attention. Transnet, which along with another railway union represents 120,000 workers, was opposed to the split, naturally. Now the railroad administration is trying to pit one union against the other.

One complication is that the railroads, which transport about 5 million passengers a day, are still nationally owned. The management, however, with the approval of the minister of transportation, a Social Democrat, wants to privatize half of the railways, or at least the rolling stock (locomotives and rail cars), taking its ownership to the stock market like any private company.

Many provincial governments opposing this new step, which they see as leading further along the muddy road to privatization. They fear that smaller, less profitable lines will increasingly be closed down in favor of fast, fancy intercity lines. Many progressives are also opposed. The new Left Party opposes all further privatization of public enterprises, recalling how both customers and the diminishing staff of the telephone and postal service have suffered since they were privatized.

But there is another complication: heading both the GDL and the Transnet unions are conservative union leaders who have been fooled, corrupted or bribed in favor of privatization.

Despite the confusion, progressives generally support the workers’ fight for a wage increase.

On Oct. 15 the GDL rejected Deutsche Bahn’s latest offer, and it may stage another short strike to press its demands. The courts have banned longer strikes.

The second issue in the headlines is the so-called reform package pushed through by the former coalition government of Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats and the Greens, with the approval of all other parliamentary parties except the Left Party.

The government ruled that after one year, unemployed workers lose relatively generous insurance payments and are reduced to the dole, i.e. welfare status. The jobless must list all property of any kind, from jewelry and a car to insurance policies and an apartment. To the extent that such property exceeds a certain level, the dole money is reduced or denied, even if that requires changing apartments. This can mean giving up all that people worked and saved for during a lifetime.

Since proper jobs for those over 40 years of age are rare, this means taking almost any job at any miserable wage, as low as one euro an hour, or face a cutoff from all aid. This has already cost a high price in misery.

But with a growing new Left Party gaining strength not only in eastern but in western Germany — current polls give it 13 percent nationwide — the Social Democrats, in panic at their losses of members and voters, have suddenly rediscovered their social conscience. The party head, Kurt Beck, now calls for “some alterations” in the so-called reform program, like extending the year of compensation for jobless workers over 50 to one and a half or two years.

But Franz Muentefering, the Social Democratic deputy chancellor and labor minister, refuses to go along, partly for fear of a collapse of the coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, which might mean an early new election with disastrous results for the Social Democrats. A party congress will soon try to iron out differences and escape this quandary.