East German railroad strike runs out of steam in Berlin

The bizarre strike against the East German railroad in West Berlin is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. There was no new "Berlin blockade." There was no spread of Polish workers' restiveness to East German workers.

Freight trains again began to run to West Berlin Sept. 24. The 120 activist strikers have all been fired, and like their colleagues let go in redundancies early this year will probably find jobs with the West Berlin transportation system.

The seven-day wonder began on Sept. 17 with a sudden strike by West Berlin employees of the East German-run Reichsbahn Railway Company that halted freight train deliveries to West Berlin and virtually all of the elevated urban transit in West Berlin for a week. During a 24-hour period beginning the night of Sept. 20-21 they also halted virtually all passenger trains connecting West Germany and West Berlin.

The peculiarity of East Germany operating a transit system in West Berlin and hiring West Berliners to man it goes back to the division of the city in post World War II days. At that time the administration of all the elevated lines in the politically divided, but physically still undivided, halves of Berlin went to East Berlin; the administration of all subway lines in the two halves of the city went to West Berlin.

The strikers were protesting the end of late-night service on the West Berlin elevated line as of the beginning of the winter schedule Sept. 27. They were also demanding a 30 percent increase in wages to match West German railroad wages, real election of their union representatives -- and, as the strike proceeded, reinstatement of the strikers who were summarily fired. Their final, politically naive demand -- after the East German management not only refused to speak with the strikers but also sent in railway police with dogs to clear the strikers out of of signal boxes they had occupied in West Berlin -- was that the West Berlin Senate take over administration of the city's elevated train network from East Germany.

Throughout the strike the American, British, and French commandants who nominally administer West Berlin under the 1972 four-power agreement maintained a discreet silence. They noted the obligation of East Germany to keep trains running between West Berlin and West Germany, but they said they would not interfere in wage negotiations. Only on the day of interruption of long-distance passenger train service did a British spokesman say a violation of the Berlin agreement might be involved.

Although some of the West Berlin strikers cited the Polish strikers as their inspiration and hoped that East German fellow members of the East German union would join the strike, there never was any likelihood that the strike would spread to East German workers. It was only because the West Berlin employees enjoyed the protection of West German citizenship that they could strike and know that they would not be jailed as punishment.

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