When I arrived last week at the airport in Paris, I was stunned by the Lufthansa signs: “flights cancelled because of strike.” Because I was flying home to the US, I was not concerned. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell my husband, who flew one day later to Eastern Europe. He got stuck in Frankfurt because his connection had been cancelled. What’s up in Germany, the country of order and efficiency, when Lufthansa experiences strikes again and again?
Is Germany developing a strike culture?
When I moved from Frankfurt to the States three years ago, striking was a French specialty, not a German one. But for the last 12 months, almost every aspect of the German public life has been affected by strikes. Daycare teachers, postal workers, train engineers, and airplane pilots have gone on strike during the last 18 months, sometimes for weeks at a time. Last week, flight attendants at Lufthansa went on strike, affecting the entire airline.
Thanks to a booming export industry, Germany is doing well economically. Workers and employees want now a larger share of this prosperity. My former housecleaner in Germany works part-time for the German Postal Service for years. I don’t know if she participated in strikes, but I remember her telling me that the workload continuously increased without any compensation. On the contrary, quitting or retiring manpower has not been replaced, workloads have increased, but pay has stayed the same.
At least at the beginning of the year, better working conditions or better pay were not the reasons for German strikes. Instead, these strikes opposed a new law. Since July 2015, this new law requires the biggest union among an industry or a company to negotiate with the company. Smaller unions have now to follow the results of the negotiation.
German order and efficiency
Germany is still far from imitating the French strike culture. In a future post, I’ll revisit this French phenomenon. However, Lufthansa’s strike shows a growing gap in Germany’s reputation of order and efficiency.
According to the German national statistics office, Germans trade-union members don’t strike much compared to their European counterparts. The Washington Post reported that “Between 2005 and 2012, Germany lost, on average, 16 days per 1,000 workers to strikes. By contrast, France lost a whopping 139 days, and Denmark lost 117. The United States lost around 10 days.”
However, Germans feel strikes stronger than before. According to der SPIEGEL, a leading German news magazine, almost 90% of recent strikes concerned the service industry. The increasing mobility let consumers feel the effects immediately when pilots, flight attendants, or train engineers strike. During the last Lufthansa strike, which lasted one week, 4,700 flights were cancelled, affecting over half a million passengers.
An upcoming German strike culture?
According to Dr. Jörg Nowak, political scientist at the University of Kassel, Germans are more inclined to strike now than they were 25 years ago. During the last train engineers’ strike, the majority of the population sympathized with the strike. Nowak explains this attitude: “people experience similar things while working—for example, unpaid overtime.”
Can we expect more strikes in Germany in the future?
In an article on Nov. 14th, the German newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten explained the developing strike culture in Germany with the rise of privatization and an increased competition.
As stated by Dr. Nowak, privatization often means a higher workload with worse working conditions. In addition, some companies reduce or void past agreements and create cheaper subsidiaries where they try to move their employees. All these measures seek to lower costs and to stay competitive.
Depending on the success of the last strikes, experts anticipate that unions will fight for better working conditions. In this case, it is now more difficult to negotiate a compromise than previously for wage strikes.
Keep cool and praise Germany
Despite these recent events, Germany is one of the European countries where people strike the least. Workers are highly qualified with a strong work ethic. Germans are reliable, punctual, and capable of delivering excellent products. Even with fewer working hours than Americans, Germans are more productive than most of their global counterparts. Working hours mean working hours. Forget about the strikes. As The Huffington Post stated last year, “When a German is at work, they [sic] are focused and diligent, which in turn leads to higher productivity in a shorter period of time.” After a strike, Germans are able to catch up as soon as possible.