German railway fails to halt strike, appeals to higher court

Union calling for improved pay, negotiating rights
By Frank Siebelt / Reuters
||Last Updated: 11/07/2014

FRANKFURT (Reuters) — Germany's state rail operator Deutsche Bahn appealed to a higher court on Friday to try to stop a train drivers' strike after a lower court rejected its argument that the strike was illegal.

The strike, which began on Wednesday, has brought rail travel and freight to a halt across the nation of 82 million people, disrupting the lives of commuters, long-distance travellers, manufacturers and retailers.

The labour court in the regional state of Hesse began deliberations on Friday morning after a lower labour court in Frankfurt ruled on Thursday that the strike was neither illegal nor disproportionate.

If it runs until Monday as planned, the action will be the longest rail strike in Germany's post-war history. It also threatens to mar celebrations in Berlin this weekend of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

"Strikes have major impact and cause major damage," Judge Ursula Schmidt told reporters shortly before midnight after six hours of deliberations. "But that's what strikes are all about."

The strike by the 20,000-strong GDL train drivers' union over pay and negotiating rights has brought to a halt a network that employs 196,000 people.

The union is demanding the right to negotiate on behalf of 17,000 train stewards. It also wants a 5 per cent pay increase and a reduction in the working week to 37 hours from 39.

Deutsche Bahn had asked for an injunction to halt the strike after the GDL rejected an offer of mediation.

Union leader Claus Weselsky, who has been vilified in the media and in public, said the right to strike was protected by the constitution.

"We hope that this court will also respect our constitutional rights," he said on his way into court on Friday.

About 5.5 million Germans travel by rail each day, relying on the high-speed lines that criss-cross the country. About a fifth of German freight is also transported by rail.

Economists estimate a strike of more than three days could cost the economy up to 100 million euros ($130 million) a day if assembly lines have to shut because of supply shortages.

Strikes in Germany are relatively rare because employers and larger unions are usually able to resolve differences at the negotiating table. The GDL held a 60-hour strike on a school holiday weekend last month.

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