Nasty train drivers?

In an exclusive comment piece, Rainer Dumont du Voitel, former Vice-President of CESI, shares his opinion on the German train drivers strike and rests his case on trade union pluralism.

Nasty train drivers?

The European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI) is situated near the centre of Brussels.  As a European trade union umbrella organisation, it works directly alongside the European institutions in the middle of the European quarter. Its members include, through the organisation ‘Autonomous Train Drivers’ Unions of Europe’ (ALE), the professional group GDL (Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer or German Train Drivers‘ Union in English), which has received a lot of media attention in Germany in recent weeks due to its repeated strike action. The fact that trains have been cancelled due to the strikes has, understandably, prompted annoyance and incomprehension amongst frustrated train users.

The reason for the upheaval is a seemingly endless labour dispute over the amount by which salaries will be adjusted – a move which has been a long time coming. However, what is also at stake is representative authority, trade union pluralism, the role of specialised trade unions and the admissibility of the end of the exclusivity of collective agreements in the train sector, as set down by law. However, it is the commuters and travellers who rely on their trains running on time who always pay the price, even though they have nothing to do with this dispute and should in no way be made responsible for it.

In the train drivers’ labour dispute, which is not disimilar to the Lufthansa  pilots’ strike, there is a very urgent need for clarifications to be given and solutions to be found.

As with every pay dispute, all sides are guilty of mistakes and blunders in this disagreement. No doubt the potential for pressure due to walkouts is greater amongst locomotive drivers than it is for traffic wardens or those working for services which tow illegally parked cars.

If trains stop running, there is an enormous economic fallout and peoples’ mobility is painfully and tangibly compromised. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that all social partners, i.e. not just the trade unions, but also the employers, bear equal responsibility for this.

The case in point does not just deal with adequate pay. It may be that the requested amount is a little too high.

After all, everyone knows, at least in Germany,  that, following an equally adequate, but perhaps rather too low offer on the part of the employers, the social partners have to agree on a mean value that benefits affected workers but which can also be borne by economy as a whole due to the increased purchasing power that it generates. This comes after exhausting negotations and occasionally also robust power struggles, which is required for the staff to keep up a united front.

However, what was thrown into the ring in the dispute this time affects the democratic culture in our  community and has a knock-on effect on trade union freedom and free trade unions in other EU Member States.


In a highly publicised decision on 23 June 2010, the Federal Labour Court, with reference to the freedom of association guaranteed by constitutional law (article 9, para 3) adopted the principle of what had hitherto been the mandatory exclusivity of collective agreements  in the same company, so that more collective agreements were possible in future. Since then, the majority trade unions in the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) alongside the employer associations, have been kicking up a fuss in an effort to prevent the feared fragmentation of the pay-scale landscape. However, what the DGB also fears above all is the fact that this will strengthen small traditional specialised unions with lobbying potential and in turn weaken its own level and power of representation, which would lead to a whole series of sectors with this kind of growing pay negotiating capacity on the part of professional organisations active in unions, which, due to the nature of their activity, will never be able to generate massively large membership figures.

In the case in question, the EVG (Railway and Transport Union) has joined forces with the employer Bundesbahn AG in order to suppress the GDL, which is seven times smaller (it has 34,000 members, chiefly train drivers) but is stronger and thus more attractive. It is thus helping the train company with the few train drivers that it represents to keep up with business as usual as far as possible by abandoning any sense of trade union solidarity.

Given the fact that both unions are actually calling for fairly similar salary increases (including accompanying measures of between 5 and 6%) presenting a united front in this labour dispute could have led to a conclusion which was acceptable for all a long time ago.

The demand made by the Confederation of German Trade Unions in agreement with the employer Bundesbahn AG and directed at the legislator to curb trade union pluralism in a possibly unconstitutional and undemocratic way in order to force into law the exclusivity of collective agreements (as well as a system whereby the EVG alone represents all train employees), is merely intended to serve as a distraction from the fact that the necessary agreement on pay scales would have been reached a long time ago and a reasonable salary improvement could have been ushered in without so many cancelled trains and travel misery if only the EVG had not put their demands for sole representation and power interests ahead of the interests of the train drivers.

The employer Deutsche Bahn AG could also have made concessions far earlier in the game, but it hopes to pit the unions against each other, split them up and weaken them in order to increase its own room for manoeuvre. In so doing, Bahn AG accepts the fact that, through dragging out the labour dispute in this unncessary manner, it is disregarding its duty to provide transport and thus also disregarding the interests of those using the trains in order preferably to bring in higher profit margins in the long-term.

This conflict cannot therefore be solved by reducing the democratic fundamental right to freedom of association. Rather, the only solution is for all social partners involved to adopt a responsible approach, geared to the common good.”