Home Brussels Angry workers and slumping salaries make for a combustible mix at Europe’s airlines and railways

Angry workers and slumping salaries make for a combustible mix at Europe’s airlines and railways

by editor

BRUSSELS — Europe’s airlines and railways are booming, but now companies are being hit with strikes as workers demand salary increases.

It’s creating havoc across the Continent.

Germany has been hit by multiple simultaneous air and rail strikes — the latest on Tuesday and Wednesday, disrupting the travel plans of millions.

“In terms of labor unrest, Germany could become the next France,” warned Gunnar Beck, a member of the European Parliament with the far-right Identity and Democracy group.

In Germany and other countries, workers are reacting to wage stagnation.

“Real wages in Germany are now about 4 percent lower than they were in 2021,” said Simon Jäger, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Such a massive fall is unprecedented in the recent economic history of the country.”

Show us the money

Unions argue that companies have enough money to boost salaries.

“The goal of our strike is to harm the company [Deutsche Bahn] economically,” said Claus Weselsky, leader of the GDL train drivers’ union, whose members staged a 24-hour strike on Tuesday.

GDL is demanding a 35-hour work week and an average 15 percent pay increase for its workers.

Last month, Lufthansa proposed a 0.5 percent pay increase for its ground staff, according to the Ver.di union. That outraged workers, who are demanding a 12.5 percent hike.

The strikes come as Lufthansa reported stellar results for 2023, more than doubling its net profit to €1.7 billion from €790 million in 2022.

“While the group is giving its pilots high double-digit pay rises with basic annual salaries of up to €270,000, ground staff are getting starting hourly wages of €13” without “being compensated for the price increases of recent years,” said Ver.di union negotiator Marvin Reschinsky, who accused Lufthansa of being “blatantly anti-social.”

Last month, Lufthansa proposed a 0.5 percent pay increase for its ground staff | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This week it’s the turn of cabin crews, whose walkout on Tuesday and Wednesday could affect up to 70,000 passengers, according to Lufthansa.

The airline argues that the strikes are disrupting its efforts to strike a deal.

“If escalation is sought instead of the solution, then something is wrong,” Michael Niggemann, Lufthansa’s head of human resources, said during last week’s results presentation.

This situation “is surprising” because “Germany has traditionally been a place of constructive and relatively peaceful union-employer relations. That seems to be over now, due to the rapidly declining economic situation and inflation in the country,” said Beck, the ID lawmaker.

Germany isn’t the only hotbed of travel sector strikes.

CGT, France’s largest union, announced last month that workers at Paris public transport operator RATP could go on strike at any moment over seven months starting on Feb. 5. That threatens to paralyze traffic in the French capital during this summer’s Olympic Games.

The strikes are creating havoc across the Continent | Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty Images

Livia Spera, general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, blamed “European austerity policy,” which she said is “reducing the resources of local governments, which are the ones that finance the public transport.”

Meanwhile, Italy’s main unions on Monday announced possible strikes at ports over the renewal of a national contract for dockworkers.

In Brussels, public transport workers walked out twice in recent days: on Tuesday to join a trade union confederation protest against EU budget policies and last Friday on International Women’s Day.

Pilots with Brussels Airlines, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, are threatening to strike “in blocks of four days once or twice a month” starting March 23.

Labor market squeeze

Jäger of MIT said in an email that the strikes in Germany are the result not only of “unions attempting to gauge how much higher wages they can demand given high inflation and negative real wage growth,” but also of “employers being slow to realize that the labor shortages they are complaining about really mean that the price (or wage) they are willing to pay has not been right for a while.”

The walkouts are likely to get worse, said Denise Vesper, a researcher on the psychological aspects of trade unions and strikes at Saarland University.

“At the moment the companies are not responding positively, so I would expect more strikes,” she said. “The main factors are the high level of dissatisfaction with how companies and organizations valued the work of their employees during the pandemic, the loss of income due to high inflation, and the improved bargaining position of the trade unions due to the shortage of skilled workers.”

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