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Strike country Germany?

In the past few weeks, buses, trains and planes have repeatedly come to a standstill. Many believe Germany is already on the way to becoming the number one strike country. Are there really more strikes than before?

Everything in Germany is rolling, driving and flying again. It feels like an exception in 2024. In the first three months of the year, the public groaned under various strikes.

It started with the GDL train drivers, who almost paralyzed Deutsche Bahn several times and for days. Then there were the Lufthansa ground staff and security staff at airports, and everything in local public transport also came to a standstill.

An agreement has now been reached on both of the former, while an agreement on local transport seems a long way off. In North Rhine-Westphalia, ver.di is currently voting on indefinite strikes on buses and trains.

Strike country number one?

So the strike year 2024 is not over yet and the feeling remains present: Germany is developing into Europe's number one strike country. But it's not quite that simple.

Clemens Höpfner is critical of the comparisons that have often been made recently between the strike statistics of different countries. He researches collective bargaining and industrial dispute law at the University of Cologne and explains in an interview tagesschau.dethe Federal Agency itself writes in its annual report: “These numbers cannot be compared. The counting method is simply completely different in the different states.”

In France, for example, which is at the top in international comparison, political strikes are also counted. So when parts of the population take to the streets against a higher retirement age, this also finds its way into the strike statistics. In Germany this would instead be seen as a political demonstration.

More strikes than in Austria and Switzerland

“I would refrain from comparing us with France, simply because of the political strikes,” says Höpfner. “We can, for example, use Switzerland or Austria as a comparison, where we have a similar collective bargaining legal system. And then we will see that we have 18 times as many strike days in Germany as in Austria and Switzerland.”

At least on average in recent years there have been strikes quite often in Germany. And what about the first months of 2024?

“As far as the perceived increased burden of strikes recently is concerned, in my view the reason is clearly that we now have massive strikes in the transport industry,” says Höpfner. “This is different than when the retail sector goes on strike and these strikes hardly have any impact on supplies. Customers usually don't even notice.” Amazon, for example, has been on strike repeatedly for more than eleven years without any major effects.

What do the statistics say?

So is the perceived increase in strikes just a distorted perception? This is difficult to prove empirically. There is no reliable data available for either 2023 or the first months of 2024.

The employment agency's strike statistics and the Hans Böckler Foundation's collective bargaining statistics, the two sources often cited in Germany, have their weaknesses. Both publications primarily count absolute strike days or “days lost due to labor disputes”. However, the effects on the public or the economic damage caused by strikes are not recorded.

Clemens Höpfner gives an example: “We have strikes at Frankfurt Airport, once by cleaning staff and the other time by tower air traffic controllers. When tower air traffic controllers go on strike, it is enough if four or five air traffic controllers refuse to work. Then no one flies Airplane more. It would take many times more cleaning staff to achieve the same effect.” Nevertheless, a strike by cleaners would have a greater impact on the strike statistics. Simply because there are more cleaning workers.

Intensity of conflict instead of strike days

In order to create better comparability between states but also between individual years in Germany, Höpfner advocates using conflict intensity as a variable. Instead of lost days, the key issue would then be the level of escalation a collective bargaining dispute reaches. One-day warning strikes with little impact on the public would then have less weight than a strike vote on indefinite strikes. The German Economic Institute has been publishing a corresponding report for several years.

“As far as this escalation of conflict is concerned, in 2023 we are even ahead of 2015, which we actually see as a super strike year,” says Clemens Höpfner. “The feeling among the population is not deceptive: there are more and more strikes and, above all, failures, noticeable failures.”

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