Why are there so many strikes in Germany at the moment?
Airport security staff, Lufthansa ground staff, train drivers, bus drivers and doctors; sectors across Germany are being hit by a wave of strikes. What’s pushing them?
Tarifvertrag season: Why is everyone striking in Germany?
Back in December, after months of unsuccessful negotiations with Deutsche Bahn, 97 percent of German Train Drivers’ Union (GDL) members voted for an indefinite strike. - although GDL boss Claus Welseky promised to hold off action until after the Christmas period drew to a close.
With the new year came a wave of strikes in Germany, not just from the GDL but security staff and ground staff at airports, doctors, medical assistants, and bus, tram and U-Bahn drivers. Almost every week since January 1 has seen at least one strike in Germany, either nationwide, or across one or multiple German states and negotiations are ongoing.
One reason for this is that the new year also brought with it “Tarifvertrags-Saison” (collective labour agreement season). In Germany, entire industries or individual companies can work with Tarifverträge (collective bargaining agreements). These contracts are negotiated between employees, their trade union representatives and their employers.
However, these contracts have an expiry date, after which employers, employees and union representatives return to the negotiating table to discuss a new deal. At the moment, train drivers, airport security staff, bus drivers, medical staff and more, are all negotiating new Tarifverträge.
2024 creating the perfect conditions for strikes in Germany
However, negotiations don’t always lead to strikes, which are considered a last resort. What else is at play in 2024's Tarifvertrag season? “[I]n the last few years, we've had historically high inflation rates, that employees have had to take some massive real-terms salary losses," Thorsten Schulten, a researcher at the Hans Böckler Foundation, told Deutsche Welle.
With most unions demanding significant pay rises and a one-off inflation offset payment, employers in 2024 are more reluctant to accept demands, and at least in the case of the GDL, have refused to come close to meeting demands until after multiple warning strikes and longer industrial action. All of this draws out negotiations and can make strikes more regular, bigger and last longer.
More people in Germany are joining unions, and younger
In recent history, in comparison to their European and particularly French neighbours, employees in Germany don’t have such a penchant for striking. According to the Institute of Economic and Social Sciences, between 2012 and 2021, only 18 work days a year were lost due to strike action in Germany per 1.000 employees, in comparison to 92 days a year in France. For reference, Slovakia (0 days lost), Austria (1) and Switzerland (1) have the fewest strikes in Europe.
While Tarifvertrag negotiations cause large disruptions in Germany, fewer employees in the federal republic are covered by the collective bargaining contracts than they were just over a decade ago, 43 percent in 2023 compared to 56 percent in 2010 - and significantly less than the 80 percent goal set by the EU in 2022.
But ver.di, one of Germany’s biggest trade unions, is hoping that this wave of strikes is proof of a change in the tide. The organisation has said that 2023 was its most successful year since it was founded in 2001. Last year it signed up 193.000 new members in Germany, a net gain of 40.000 people. Similar increases are to be found at the GDL and hospitality union, the NGG.
Germany’s worker shortage is driving employee confidence
According to Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German Institute for Economic Research, it is not just the hard times intersection of inflation, the leftovers of coronavirus hardship and increased union membership which is driving the wave, but also a renewed confidence in employees during a record-high worker shortage in Germany.
"We have 1.8 million open jobs, and employees are getting more confident and saying: 'We want better working conditions and better pay,'" Fratzscher told Deutsche Welle. The demographic of those making these demands is also changing, with ver.di noting that over 50.000 of its new members in 2023 were under the age of 28.
Unions are also making a move to demand new conditions that appeal to the younger generation. IG Metall, Europe's largest industrial union, has been in negotiations since 2020 to institute a four-day week for metal workers in Germany, partly in the hope that it will combat job losses in an industry that urgently needs to make a green transition.
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