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These striking German rail drivers demonstrated outside a rail station earlier this month.

Strike-Hit Germany Passes Disputed Bargaining Law for Unions

May 22, 2015
Two trade unions immediately announced plans to try to block the controversial legislation, calling its approval a "black day" and accusing the new rules of robbing workers of the right to strike.

The German parliament passed a new law Friday aimed at streamlining wage-bargaining and preventing small, localized industrial disputes—like the recent strikes by train drivers and pilots—from paralyzing entire sectors.

But two trade unions immediately announced plans to try to block the controversial legislation, calling its approval a "black day" and accusing the new rules of robbing workers of the right to strike.

Drawn up by the left-right "grand coalition" government under Chancellor Angela Merkel, the law seeks to create the principle of "one company, one wage agreement". 

It introduces rules for competing unions within the same company and job category in the case of a wage dispute.

Under the law, if the competing unions cannot agree, the union with the most members will become the sole partner to negotiate with management in an industrial dispute. 

Any agreed deal will then have to be adopted by smaller unions representing employees doing the same job.

'Doesn't Touch the Right to Strike'

Fiercely contested by opposition lawmakers as well as some unions, Labor Minister Andrea Nahles rejected the criticism and said the law, due to take effect in the coming months, would bolster the basic principles of union representation.

"We're not touching the right of association and the right to strike," Nahles, a Social Democrat, said in the Bundestag lower house of parliament ahead of the vote.

"Sometimes one has to battle and sometimes one has to strike. Even if there is a compromise in the end, it's necessary," she said. "Progress and social achievements don't come by themselves."

Lawmakers from the ecologist Greens and the far-left Linke criticized the law, which was widely approved by 444 MPs, with 126 against and 16 abstentions, according to a corrected count by the parliament. 

"Small unions are to be robbed of their right to exist," Linke MP Klaus Ernst complained.

Just a day earlier, railways operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) announced the end of a drivers' strike that had paralyzed train services in Europe's biggest economy, after the sides agreed to mediation.

The walkout by the small GdL union, which represents some 20,000 train drivers, was the ninth stoppage in less than a year.

The dispute centers on demands for a wage rise and shorter work hours.

But the union also wants the right to represent other rail workers such as conductors and restaurant carriage staff, effectively a turf war with the larger railway union EVG, which has more than 200,000 members, and is now involved in separate wage negotiations with DB.

'Black Day'

The head of the pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit, Ilja Schulz, said it was a "black day for freedom in Germany" and that the union would complain to the country's highest court to stop it in its tracks.

The Civil Service Federation (dbb) vowed similar action.

"If the majority of MPs no longer defend citizens' freedom of association, the judges of the Federal Constitutional Court must take over this role," dbb head Klaus Dauderstaedt said.

Employers and certain unions support the legal change, which reverts Germany back to its former  tradition of having one wage agreement for workers within a company doing the same job.

The system was overturned by the Federal Labor Court in 2010, meaning different contracts could apply for the same category of employees.

Most Germans also back the new law. A poll for ZDF public TV released Friday indicated 48% of those asked were in favor, compared to 38% against. 

Germany has faced a series of strikes in service industries in recent months, making their impacts particularly felt on the population.

Its biggest airline, Lufthansa, has been hit by a series of pilot strikes, organized by Cockpit, in a dispute over early retirement provisions.

Stoppages have also affected the postal and logistics giant Deutsche Post and, most recently, kindergartens.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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