'Strike madness' hits Germany as economy stumbles

For those striking at the gates of the SRW scrap metal factory just outside the eastern German city of Leipzig, time is not just measured in days – 136 so far – but in thousands of games of cards played, liters of coffee drunk and armfuls of firewood burned.

Or it can be measured by the length of Jonny Bohne's beard. He vows not to shave until he returns to the job he has held for two decades. Wearing his red union baseball cap and tending the fire inside an oil drum, Mr. Bohne, 56, looks like a scruffy Santa Claus.

Dozens of workers at the SRW recycling center say their strike has become the longest in post-war German history – a dubious honor in a country with a history of harmonious labor relations. (The previous record, 114 days, was held by shipyard workers in the northern city of Kiel, who went on strike in the 1950s.)

While months-long strikes are commonplace in other European countries like Spain, Belgium or France, where worker protests are something of a national pastime, Germany has long prided itself on non-disruptive collective bargaining.

A wave of strikes this year has Germans wondering if that is changing. By some measures, the first three months of 2024 saw the highest number of strikes in the country in 25 years.

The strikers paralyzed the railways and airports. Doctors have left hospitals. Bank employees left work for several days.

“Germany – a nation on strike? » the German magazine Der Spiegel recently asked. Jens Spahn, deputy leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party in Parliament, denounced a “strike madness” which, according to him, risked paralyzing the country.

These strikes are the latest chapter in the story that Germany, the “economic miracle” of the 20th century, risks becoming a cautionary tale for the 21st.

Long Europe's economic powerhouse, Germany is now the slowest-growing of the 20 countries using the euro. It entered recession in 2023 and is expected to stagnate in 2024. Under the weight of soaring energy prices and falling production, the country experienced its highest inflation in 50 years last year.

The burden falls heaviest on low- and middle-income workers. Since 2022, their real salaries, according to a recent studyhave declined more than ever since World War II.

At the same time, Germany faces an increasingly serious labor shortage and an aging population, with authorities estimating a shortage of seven million workers by 2035. This puts jeopardize the generous social protection system on which German citizens have long depended.

This is a unique moment of opportunity for workers, at a very vulnerable time for the national economy.

“Germany is emerging from the crisis more slowly than expected,” Robert Habeck, the economy minister, said last week, criticizing what he called “a little too striking.”

“We really can’t afford it,” he said.

For decades, the German economy operated profitably, supported by exports to China and cheap gas from Russia. But Moscow's invasion of Ukraine prompted Europe to wean itself off the Russian gas that fueled German industry. And Beijing's deepening “Made in China” strategy is transforming a huge Asian market that was once a source of growth for Germany into an industrial rival.

The impact on Germany has been worse than anywhere else in Europe, precisely because of its enormous manufacturing industry, which accounts for a fifth of the country's overall economic output, almost double that of France or Great Britain. -Brittany.

For low-income workers, who are now preparing for a less prosperous future than today, there is little to fall back on. About 40 percent of households have little or no net savings, said Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research.

“The concerns, dissatisfaction and fears of young people are fully justified – and of course of parents who fear for their children,” he said.

“People had confidence in social protection,” he added. “He can no longer provide what he used to.”

At the scrap metal factory, workers like Mr. Bohne take turns maintaining their 24-hour strike outside the main gates, warming themselves in construction containers or around makeshift fireplaces fueled with wood waste.

The shutdowns have forced the factory to interrupt night shifts and only one of four production lines is operating. The strikers, who are demanding an 8 percent pay increase, feel encouraged.

“We notice that solidarity has become stronger,” said Christoph Leonardt, 35, one of the demonstrators.

But the issue is not limited to remuneration. Workers are also demanding better working conditions, the ability to plan shifts and vacations well in advance, better work-life balance and fewer hours.

“The worker has become more confident,” said Katrin Heller, a 61-year-old security guard who marched last week with hundreds of fellow strikers dressed in Day-Glo vests in the new departure hall of the Berlin airport, forcing flights to be closed. canceled.

“We know we are valuable to employers and so we expect to be treated fairly,” she said. Officially, airport security officers are demanding a 15 percent raise to keep up with inflation, but many appear more frustrated by work schedules that require them to stand for up to six hours without a break.

Robert Wegener, 56, a security guard for 19 years, warns that jobs like his no longer attract young people: “If we don't get these extras, there's not much incentive to work here . »

His employer, Securitas, agrees. Jonas Timm, a company spokesperson, said recruiting had become increasingly difficult since the pandemic, when he began to notice a “change in mindset” around shift work.

Many employers have expressed frustration that more applicants, for example, are demanding shorter work hours or four-day work weeks.

Analysts disagree on why Germans want to work less, but many say a major problem is Germany's tax system, which taxes income far more heavily than private wealth, affecting disproportionately affects low- and middle-income workers.

Clemens Feust, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, says working full time can be more expensive than staying at home. A Ifo study showed that due to the tax structure of married couples, a family with one partner working full-time and the other working part-time had higher income at the end of the month than two parents working full-time .

“The fact that it’s not worth working in our middle income bracket is really a problem,” he said.

As strikers flex their might, costs to the overall economy are likely to pile up as critical infrastructure in Germany grinds to a halt.

The one-day strike at Berlin and Hamburg airports last week grounded some 570 flights and affected 90,000 travelers, according to an industry group.

THE Kiel Institute for the global economy estimates that train driver strikes cost the German economy around 100 million euros per day.

Feust said those costs are often offset as affected businesses and travelers make adjustments. The most serious damage, he says, is the economic situation.

“It's more a question of psychology,” he said, particularly at a time when Germany feels polarized by both economic and political struggles, including the war in Ukraine and the resurgence of the far right. “This leads to a heightened sense of crisis.”

The strikers say they, too, are looking for a sense of security as much as a pay increase.

“We need more reliability and we need to be able to plan for the long term,” Bohne said.

Only then, he says, will he shave his beard.

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