The next round of collective bargaining in the public sector in Germany is accompanied by industrial action on a rare scale.

The United Services Union (Verdi) is entering the third round of collective bargaining for the approximately 2.5 million public sector employees of the federal and local governments with a broad chest. The negotiations begin this Monday [27 March] in Potsdam and are expected to last up to and including Wednesday. In recent weeks, the union has impressively demonstrated its ability to mobilize with waves of warning strikes in all federal states and almost all sectors. The main focus was on local public transport, municipal hospitals, daycare centers and waste collection.

Although warning strikes are not unusual during collective bargaining in the public sector, which usually lasts several months, this time the wind is blowing much rougher than before, both in terms of quantity and quality.

According to Verdi, around 400,000 employees have taken part in strikes in recent weeks. This was also linked to the smoldering wage disputes in ground and service services at airports. There, work stoppages on some days resulted in the extensive suspension of air traffic in Germany. The port of Hamburg was also temporarily paralyzed.

The severity of the current wage dispute can be explained above all by the enormous real wage losses suffered by employees as a result of galloping inflation.

Especially since the further course of price development is not foreseeable. Even according to optimistic estimates, inflation will still average 6.4 percent in the current year. The lower wage groups in particular will be disproportionately affected, as the particularly sharp rise in prices for energy and food will account for a much larger share of the budget in their households.

The union has therefore emphasized from the outset that a wage increase of at least 500 euros is of particular importance in this wage dispute. It is true that relatively high basic amounts for low earners have long been part of Verdi’s list of demands as a “social component”. However, in the past collective bargaining rounds, they were mostly “buried” without a sound. For employees in the lower pay groups, 500 euros would mean a wage increase of up to 20 percent, significantly more than the 10.5 percent increase demanded by Verdi for all.

Negotiators for the federal government and the Association of Municipal Employers (VKA) called the union’s demands “excessive” and “not affordable.” Verdi, on the other hand, considers the offer made so far by the other side to be a “provocation”. According to the offer, table wages are to be increased in two stages by three percent on October 1, 2023, and by a further two percent from June 1, 2024, for a total period of 27 months. In addition, there would be a special payment in two installments totaling 2,500 euros.

In view of the large discrepancy between the offer and the demands, it is uncertain whether an agreement will be reached in the upcoming round of negotiations.

The high base amount for the lower income groups could prove to be a sticking point, as there are high expectations from the union base on this point in particular. It is conceivable that a further round of negotiations will be agreed on the basis of an improved offer. However, a breakdown in the talks cannot be ruled out either. This could then lead to a ballot on indefinite strikes, which in turn could lead to arbitration. Despite the high level of willingness to fight on the part of the members, it is therefore far from decided whether there will be nationwide, indefinite work stoppages.

The warning strikes continued unabated on Friday. This time, the focus was on public transport in numerous cities in several German states, including Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony. Strikes were also called in some hospitals and municipal social services.

But all this was just a small warm-up for this Monday: an all-day and cross-sector work stoppages parallel to the negotiations on a scale that is extremely rare in German collective bargaining disputes. On this day, Verdi wants to call on employees at all airports, in local public transport companies in seven federal states, in parts of the municipal ports, the highway company and the water and shipping administration to strike.

EVG employees on strike, 27 March 2023. Source: EVG Twitter profile.

This warning strike is to be given additional clout by the closing of ranks with the railroad union EVG, which has entered into collective bargaining negotiations with Deutsche Bahn and around 50 other railroad operators with a demand for twelve percent more pay and a minimum of 650 euros per month. There, too, there has so far been no offer from the company representatives that the union considers negotiable. The EVG wants to strike and largely paralyze rail traffic at the same time as Verdi. On Monday, the long-distance trains are to be suspended from the outset and that regional services can also only be maintained on a rudimentary basis.

This text has been first published by Neues Deutschland in German and has been translated by Cross-Border Talks team within the framework of transform!europe-led Media Alliance.

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