Public sector strike brings chaos to Germany

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of flights were cancelled at airports throughout Germany yesterday and several towns and cities including Berlin faced traffic chaos after thousands of the country's two million public sector workers went on strike, demanding pay increases.

The walkouts were the first serious industrial action faced by Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition government of conservatives and Social Democrats this year and were expected to be followed by a countrywide strike by train drivers from Monday. The action coincides with growing public concern about a widening gap between Germany's rich and poor.

At Frankfurt International airport, Germany's largest and Europe's third busiest air hub, more than 2,000 baggage handlers, firemen, check-in staff and ground crew went on strike at 5am on Wednesday causing at least 80 scheduled flights to be cancelled.

Industrial action by other public sector workers at Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne airports grounded 142 domestic flights scheduled by the German airline Lufthansa. The airline said that its transcontinental traffic was not affected by the dispute. The airport workers' action was followed by thousands of public sector workers in Berlin, where underground, tram and bus services throughout the capital ground to a halt yesterday. The strike, which began during a heavy snow storm, brought traffic chaos to the city.

The strikers were members of the public sector union, Ver.di, which is demanding pay rises of up to 8 per cent, backdated to 1 January. Employers have offered a 5 per cent increase over two years. In Berlin, transport workers are demanding a 12 per cent rise.

Frank Bsirske, Ver.di's chief spokesman, told striking workers at Frankfurt's airport: "Either the public employers will make an offer with clear salary increases and without upping the working hours, or we will show them our strength."

While some employers indicated that they were prepared to compromise yesterday, in Berlin, employers said that the strike was saving taxpayers' money. A Ver.di spokesman in the city warned: "We can go on for a very long time."

The Berlin strike is scheduled to last for 10 days and followed action by Ver.di members on Tuesday when dustmen, water works employees, canal and waterway staff and school employees walked off the job for several hours. On Monday, the train driver's union, GDL, is scheduled to begin a strike. The union is locked in a pay dispute with Deutsche Bahn. A 62-hour strike in November, which cost the company some €75m (£58m) a day.

Strikes over pay are rare. But this time they coincided with a widespread view that the profits derived from the country's recent economic upturn are not being shared equally. An key economic survey published on Monday appeared to support such conclusions and showed that middle class earnings had slumped while those of senior management had increased substantially over the past decade.

Public antipathy towards the wealthy has been exacerbated following revelations last month that prominent Germans, including the former head of the country's postal services Deutsche Post, had illegally transferred millions to secret bank accounts in the Alpine tax haven of Liechtenstein.

The evidence of the secret accounts was procured by Germany's intelligence services and has encouraged Mrs Merkel's government to lead demands for a Europe-wide clamp down on tax havens.