An airline pilots’ strike in Germany last week has highlighted the power comparatively small groups of employees have to cripple key areas of Germany’s economy in pursuit of their own interests.
The German government is looking to draw up legislation later this year to prevent recurrences.
“One company, one wage agreement” is the motto behind a proposed Tarifeinheit or unified wage-bargaining mechanism masterminded by German Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Andrea Nahles.
Over three days last week, the pilots’ union effectively grounded Germany’s biggest airline, Lufthansa, in a dispute over pay and early retirement entitlements.
Between Wednesday and Friday, Lufthansa — which employsabout 117,000 — was forced to cancel 3,800 flights, stranding nearly half-a-million passengers, because of a dispute concerning as few as 5,400 employees.
While Lufthansa generally avoided travel chaos by warning passengers and helping them to rebook, the walkout affected more people than any of the rare strikes held by the massive IG Metall metalworkers’ union with its more than 2 million members.
Other unions representing smaller professions — such as the Marburger Bund for hospital doctors and UFO for airline cabin crew — can have similar sway.
“I would wish that the most powerful employees within a company would use their strength to support the weakest and not merely in their own interests,” Nahles said.
Hagen Lesch, an expert from the IW economic think tank which is close to employers, analyzed 123 wage disputes and found that unions representing narrower interests were more likely to strike.
Lufthansa knows all about this.
Last summer, its Germanwings unit was threatened with walkouts by the cabin crew union, following similar strikes the previous year.
In a country used to such negotiations by sector giants such as IG Metall or Verdi, the smaller unions tend to flex their muscles most, such as the train drivers union, which halted rail traffic in 2007.
However, Nahles, of the Social Democrats, is keen to make it clear that employees’ fundamental right to strike is not under threat.
“The project is not aimed at tampering with the right to strike, but at reorganizing unified wage-bargaining. We want a single wage deal applicable across the entire company,” Social Democrat member of parliament Katja Mast said.
However, for the time being “it’s still at a consultation stage on a ministerial level. There is nothing concrete,” she said.
The interior and justice ministries are involved, and Nahles hopes to present a draft law “this year.”
The issue is delicate, because if smaller unions are prohibited from making demands while a principal wage agreement is still in place, it is difficult to see how it cannot impinge on their right to strike.
The unions seem torn.
While the DGB trade union federation said in 2010 that it was in favor of such a rule, it has backpedaled since.
“Fundamentally speaking, we don’t think it can be good if divisional unions push through their own interests without considering the wider good,” DGB official Rainer Hoffmann said.
“We as unions are in favor of wage-bargaining that is based on solidarity. But only on the condition that the right to strike is not interfered with,” Hoffmann added.
The head of the giant services sector union Verdi, Frank Bsirske, said he was critical of the government’s plans and skeptical about their implementation.