Deutsche Bahn Playing the Blame Game

German rail company Deutsche Bahn and union leaders failed to reach an agreement over the weekend to end their 10-month dispute over wages. German firms and passengers will face further strikes and travel disruptions.
These lights will stay red for longer than usual. German rail company Deutsche Bahn will again be hit by strikes.

The good news is that Deutsche Bahn and the small union representing many of its train drivers, the train drivers' union GDL, managed to sit at the same table just one week after the longest strike in the German rail company's history.

The bad news? They proved unable to resolve their 10-month dispute, despite negotiating for 20 hours in Berlin over the weekend.

The result is new strikes at Germany's largest rail company, which will likely affect freight and passenger travel. GDL, the train drivers' union, will announce more details later on Monday.

To make things worse, another union of rail and transport workers, the EVG, which competes with the train drivers' union, is also threatening strikes if Deutsche Bahn doesn't present an acceptable offer by Thursday.

EVG, the bigger union represents most of Deutsche Bahn's staff, including train conductors, catering staff and switch-yard engineers.

Adding additional drama to the mix, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, is considering a law on Friday that would reinstate the principle of unified wage agreements for employee groups.

The GDL, the train drivers' union has accused Deutsche Bahn of playing for time until the law takes effect in July. The legislation would reduce the influence of smaller unions like the GDL.

The reason for the failed talks between the railway company Deutsche Bahn and the GDL depends on who you talk to. According to Deutsche Bahn, the two sides had in fact made progress, but the train drivers' union failed to show up for a further round of negotiations Sunday morning.

Union chief Claus Weselsky, for his part, has said that Deutsche Bahn is at fault, having left the negotiating table while the union was still in deliberations.

The most recent phase of the long-running dispute has focused on the wages of some 2,000 switch-yard engineers. These engineers normally work at the stations, arranging the cars into trains. They're paid less than the actual train drivers.

But Deutsche Bahn has increasingly asked the switch-yard engineers to also fill in as drivers. The train drivers' union has criticized this practice, demanding that the engineers receive a wage hike to reflect the extra tasks they're being asked to perform.

 

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The negotiations have been complicated by the fact that the GDL is a relatively small union that's competing for membership with the EVG, a much larger rail and transport union, which represents many of Deutsche Bahn's train conductors and other employees.

Deutsche Bahn has granted the train drivers' union the right to negotiate for the employees it represents, including not just train drivers, but also conductors, catering staff, and switch-yard engineers among others. The rail company, however, wants to avoid making different wage agreements with both unions for members of the same employee group.

Mr. Weselsky of the train drivers' union has accused Deutsche Bahn of trying to maintain the wage gap, and of negotiating with the bigger rail and transport union, that sets train drivers apart from the switch-yard engineers.

According to Deutsche Bahn, the train drivers' union actually viewed the company's most recent proposals regarding the switch-yard engineers  as “thoroughly acceptable and intelligent.” But the labor union ultimately rejected them for “political reasons.” The train drivers' union is now “twisting the facts,” according to Deutsche Bahn.

Deutsche Bahn has tried to bring in external mediators to help resolve the dispute. After the most recent strike, the railway operator sought to recruit Brandenburg's former state premier, Matthias Platzeck. But the train drivers' union rejected this proposal.

Mr. Platzeck still played a role behind the scenes by helping to organize the talks, though he wasn't actually present for the marathon negotiations over the weekend.

 

Deutsche Bahn Freight and Rivals-01

 

Prior to Mr. Platzeck, Deutsche Bahn had suggested former federal labor judge Klaus Bepler as a mediator. Mr. Bepler, who chaired the fourth senate of the Federal Labor Court, overturned in 2010 the legal precedent that required a unified wage agreement for a single employee group.

Mr. Weselsky rejected Mr. Bepler's mediation as well. According to the train driver union's chief, Germany's constitution – known as the Basic Law – gives him the right to conclude wage agreements for the workers he represents. And fundamental rights cannot be the object of arbitration, Mr. Weselsky said.

The two sides did apparently come close to calling on independent expertise. But with the renewed failure of the talks, Deutsche Bahn has “intentionally gambled away the chance for interim results and subsequent arbitration,” according to the train drivers' union.

Deutsche Bahn's personnel manager, Ulrich Weber, believes that arbitration is the only solution. Increasingly, the company is at a loss over Mr. Weselsky's tactics. The chief of the train drivers' union is deliberately trying to cause a fight, according to sources in Deutsche Bahn.

One Deutsche Bahn manager, who asked to remain anonymous, told Handelsblatt that Mr. Weselsky just doesn't want to compromise.

 

Dieter Fockenbrock is Handelsblatt's chief correspondent for the companies and markets desk. Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the authors: fockenbro[email protected] and [email protected]