Decision in German train drivers dispute sets right-to-strike precedent

The recent wage dispute between the German train drivers’ union (GDL) and the state-owned rail company Deutsche Bahn shows that even small unions can tie up huge companies.

GDL is asking for a 31% pay rise and organised several strikes throughout Germany after Deutsche Bahn rejected its proposal.

Called to decide on the legality of such strikes, the Labour Court of Chemnitz ruled that GDL could exercise its right to strike only with regard to regional passenger transport at national level, but issued an injunction against strikes in long-distance services.

The State Labour Court of Saxony upheld GDL’s appeal, and stoppages on long-distance passenger and freight services could now also go national.

So employers that previously faced only one main union when negotiating collective agreements may now have to deal with the demands of several small unions.

Furthermore, some unions which represent an occupational group that is important for the operation of the company, even if small, may have the bargaining power to negotiate agreements in their favour.

If GDL succeeds in its demands, other small unions may follow suit, and employers will have to deal with the threat of small trade unions leapfrogging one another with demands and strikes called at various times of the year in different operational sectors of the company.

Every attempt of the government to restrict strikes seems to be unconstitutional, as the legislator cannot deny or restrict the small trade unions’ right to strike.

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