France, Germany swap strike tactics

French unions, prone to protesting, on Friday ended the worst rail strike in 12 years. German conductors, meanwhile, are forsaking the country's model of consensus.

No metro. No newspaper. No mail. And now, after all that, no victory.

Since 1968, France's unions have successfully blocked labor-market reforms by taking to the street en masse. Such was the intent of the transit workers, teachers, students, and newspaper printers who came out in force over the past two weeks to protest a cornerstone of Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign platform: pension reform.

But in what many see as a breakthrough, one by one, union leaders last week called for an end to the strikes.

"Let's face it. France has evolved; we live in Europe," says Damien Houilliez of Strasbourg, a train driver for 19 years. "It's OK to stage a day of protest, but do we have to take the whole country hostage?"

Across the Rhine, meanwhile, German conductors have also broken new ground. In a country where social unrest is rare, a hitherto obscure union earlier this month blocked freight and passenger trains for three days, staging Germany's worst rail strike since World War II. It cost the country an estimated ¤75 million ($111 million), but did more than wreak havoc on the economy. In rejecting an agreement between Deutsche Bahn, the country's main railway company, and the bulk of its workforce, the small conductors' union threatened a labor system that has been the backbone of social cohesion and economic success.

The upheaval in France and Germany shows how challenging it is for Europe's most prosperous economies to adapt their social-welfare systems in the face of globalization. The effort, experts say, is changing the unions in both countries, with each country borrowing from the other.

"You've got two strike cultures that are radically different moving closer," says Gerd Held of the University of Dortmund, who studies social conflict in cities around the world. "In France ... there's an increasing awareness that France can't go on living like in the past. In Germany, the strikes have shattered union unity. You're seeing small unions popping up with their own demands."

French culture of conflict waning

The contrasting strike cultures, with France dominated by conflict and Germany by consensus, are rooted in history.

"In France, people are used to having social conflict. They're prepared to act to defend their own interest even if it goes against the majority of workers," says Heiner Dribbusch of the Hans Boeckler Foundation in Düsseldorf, the research arm of the German Confederation of Trade Unions. "In Germany, there is a greater reluctance to challenge the law, to be on edge. The thinking is that a civil servant is someone who has to be loyal to the state."

Taking to the streets has been a part of French culture as far back as the Revolution. Rivalry among unions, which are many and often linked to radical left-wing ideologies, has fostered the conflicts. But last week, even the more militant Solidarity, Unity and Democracy union rallied behind negotiations.

By contrast, Germany is wary of union rivalry, which during the Weimar Republic led to social unrest and contributed to the rise of National Socialism. As a result, after World War II, politicians created a legal infrastructure where unions would become partners, and a guarantor of democracy, says Mr. Dribbusch.

Today, unions negotiate pay and working conditions for entire sectors of the economy through collective bargaining. Over the years, they have brought shorter work weeks, longer vacations, and better wages with little or no labor dispute for entire sectors of the economy. The standard of living in Germany has traditionally been higher than in France, "and more money has made compromise easier," says Professor Held.

Lowell Turner, chairman of international and comparative labor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., says the Germans have combined economic success and high wages, with strong labor and employer associations meeting each other at the negotiating table. But that success is facing serious challenges.

"It's a good model, but it's been under tremendous pressure since the Berlin Wall came down," says Professor Turner. With globalization opening Europe toward new markets and Eastern European workers driving wages down, Germans have increasingly felt that collective bargaining no longer protected their interests, says Turner. It also makes it more difficult for employers to be as flexible as they need to in an age of globalization, according to studies by the German Economic Institute in Cologne. Since 1991, the German Federation of Unions has lost almost half its members.

Splintering of unions in Germany

Airline pilots, doctors, and now train drivers have broken away from big unions to get better deals. In the latest strike, conductors want a 31-percent pay raise, saying that the 4.5-percent raise the big railway union secured doesn't do justice to drivers who have seen their salaries decline 10 percent since 1994 while the workweek went from 38 to 41 hours. On Saturday, Deutsche Bahn said it was prepared to offer a raise of up to 13 percent, but refused to give conductors a separate contract.

If train drivers successfully negotiate their own contracts, that would further erode Germany's system of collective bargaining, says Turner. "You now have certain groups in a strong marketing negotiating position breaking off and demanding their own, much better deals, and that's a threat for the German model of industrial relation and social partnership," he explains.

A consequence of companies negotiating salaries with more disparate unions is that unions with competing interests could strike more often. Better-organized unions would have the upper hand, making differences among workers greater and making social conflict more prevalent, as is the case in France. "Union unity isn't there anymore," adds Held. "The threat potential of unions is going to grow."

Now, just as militant unions in France are showing signs of compromise, unions in Germany are showing signs of stepping up social conflict. German train driver Manuel Zimmermann of Frankfurt keeps his eyes on France. "You see there that by striking, workers get what they want much more quickly."

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