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Rebellious unions upend German order

Germany has a tradition of good relations between unions and employers, but as support erodes for well-established groups, workers are joining smaller unions willing to buck the consensus.  

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / March 12, 2012

Members of the public service sector union Verdi attend a demonstration during a warning strike in Frankfurt, Germany, March 5.

Alex Domanski/REUTERS

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Frankfurt, Germany

Stranded passengers dozing on their suitcases and grumbling over cancelled flights because of strikes is a scene one might expect in France or Greece, but not in Germany, where good labor relations have been fundamental to its economic success.

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Yet that has been the scene at Frankfurt’s airport, Europe’s third-largest, where 190 workers responsible for guiding airplanes to their parking spots went on strike on and off for three weeks last month, forcing the airport to cancel 1,600 flights.

When they asked traffic controllers to join their strike for six hours, a move that would have brought the airport to a halt, airport operator Fraport and flagship airline Lufthansa requested a court injunction against the strike, which was organized by the small aviation union GdF. A day later, a judge ordered the strikers back to work.

“A solidarity strike is irresponsible, inappropriate, and disproportionate,” said officials of the German Safety Agency.

GdF’s strike, which had far-reaching effects despite the small number of participants, highlights a shift in Germany’s organized labor system: the rise of smaller, bolder unions who buck the tradition of consensus-building between industry-wide unions and employers.

After decades of allowing unions to essentially govern themselves through special labor courts, more and more German politicians are calling on the government to rein in these rebellious unions.

“It is high time for legislators to take action and say when a strike is legal and when it is not,” says Lena Rudkowski, a European labor law specialist at Berlin’s Free University, saying that strikes should not jeopardize “essential services.” “We’re proud of having economic stability and some kind of social peace, and we want to preserve what we’ve gained over the past 50 years.”

A young democracy made unions a tool of stability

In the post-World War I Weimar Republic, competition among myriad small, politically oriented unions helped foster the social unrest that gave rise to the Third Reich. After the war, West Germany’s employers, politicians, and trade unionists worked to make unions a tool of stability for the young democracy.

Gradually a union infrastructure developed in which industry-wide unions and employer associations would act as partners and negotiate on behalf of all employees, regardless of their level. Within firms, work councils would represent workers and defend their rights. The system gave West Germans working conditions that most Europeans could only envy, including high wages, shorter workweeks, and little labor unrest.

Strikes are a common form of protest against unpopular policies throughout Europe, but in Germany strikes can only be staged against issues of pay and working conditions. When France raised the minimum legal pension age from 60 to 62 in 2010, the weeks of nationwide strikes threatened the center-right government. When the German parliament raised the retirement age from 65 to 67 in 2007, there were no strikes.

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