Transport Workers Go on Strike in Germany

BERLIN — Travel for millions of people in Germany was upended on Monday when transportation workers went on a 24-hour strike, the largest transit walkout in decades, bringing most train, tram, bus and ferry services to a halt and forcing the cancellation of a majority of flights.

Rail, local public transport, airport ground staff and other workers began to walk off the job late Sunday night in an effort to put pressure on the government as they try to negotiate salary increases of more than 10 percent in order to keep up with inflation.

The “mega-strike,” as it was described in the German media, was called by two of the country’s largest unions — Verdi, which represents public sector service workers, and EVG, which represents rail workers. The walkout, by 155,000 workers, was the largest transport workers’ action since a series of strikes in the 1990s and amounted to a warning shot about what could happen this time if negotiations fail.

The strike “is intended to make it unmistakably clear to the employers once again that the employees clearly stand behind our demands,” said Frank Werneke, the head of Verdi.

The overall nature of the German strike was a far cry from the walkouts in neighboring France, where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets on a regular basis, sometimes clashing with the police, in response to the government’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.

Instead, like the strikes by postal workers, train drivers, nurses, teachers in Britain, the labor unrest in German is a response to the higher cost of living as inflation, which was 8.7 percent last month, and rising energy costs brought about by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Verdi is demanding a salary increase of 10.5 percent — or at least 500 euros, about $540, per month, if that is more — for 2.5 million public sector workers. The government was last offering a 5 percent increase plus a onetime bonus of 2,500 euros when the last round of negotiations ended last month, and negotiations resumed on Monday morning.

EVG, which represents 230,000 rail workers, is looking for a 12 percent, or 650 euro increase. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s main rail operator, said it has already offered a bonus payment of 2,500 euros and a gradual raise that could reach 11 percent.

The union must negotiate with other rail companies, too, some of which have not made any proposal, it says. The next round of negotiations with Deutsche Bahn is scheduled for late next month.

“We will continue to negotiate hard, but also fairly and constructively,” Nancy Feaser, Germany’s interior minister, said in a statement on Monday about negotiations with the public sector employees, which her ministry is responsible for.

The strike left train stations and airports emptier than usual, while roads and cycle paths, were more congested. Even though many workers had time to make alternative plans, a spokesman for Deutsche Bahn, the country’s national rail service, criticized the unions for going on strike before negotiations had run their course.

“Millions of passengers who rely on buses and trains suffer from this exaggerated dispute,” said Achim Stauss, the spokesman for the Deutsche Bahn. “Not everyone can work from home.”

But the unions clearly believe a warning now could help them during negotiations, and suggested their patience was running thin. “We are striking today because in collective bargaining, despite the tight financial situation for many workers, we have not been presented with anything that is worthy of serious negotiations,” said Kristian Loroch, a member of the EVG negotiating committee member, German news outlets said.

Deutsche Bahn canceled all of its long-distance trains, and most of its regional and commuter services. The strike affected six million customers, it said, and travelers who had booked tickets for Monday will be able to use them at a later date without a penalty.

Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg international airports as well as many smaller airports were forced to cancel all regularly scheduled flights because of strikes of ground personnel and safety staff.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport in the capital was the only major airport to offer some semblance of international service, because the contract for workers there is not up for renewal, but most domestic flights were called off.

The strike also slowed the movement of freight on Monday. In Hamburg, Germany’s biggest port, pilots stopped working at 6 a.m. Some crews running locks along German rivers and canals also walked off the job, forcing river barges to tie up and wait until Tuesday.

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