German rail strike could end soon, union leader says

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BERLIN, Oct 13 (Reuters) A pay dispute between German railways and a train drivers' union that led to a series of strikes across Germany over the last three months could soon be resolved, a union leader said today.

Manfred Schell, chairman of the GDL union representing 34,000 train drivers, said he was ready to cut his pay demands if Deutsche Bahn agrees to give drivers a collective labour deal that sets them apart from its other 195,000 workers.

Millions of passengers were stranded yesterday when a 22-hour strike to midnight idled nearly 2,000 trains. Roadways across Germany, where rail strikes are rare, were also jammed by the walkout, which cost the economy millions of euros.

Taking a notably conciliatory stance after more than three months of threats and insults directed at Deutsche Bahn chairman Hartmut Mehdorn, Schell told Bild am Sonntag newspaper that he was now optimistic an agreement could be reached by Monday.

''I'm counting on the Bahn offering us an independent collective labour agreement,'' said Schell, whose union rejected a pay rise of 4.5 per cent Deutsche Bahn reached in July with two larger unions representing 134,000 rail workers.

''If they put decent pay rise on top of that, we'll immediately drop our demands for a 31-per cent pay rise,'' added Schell, who has been fighting to get train drivers differential treatment along the lines of airline pilots.

Deutsche Bahn has until now refused that demand, saying train drivers need less expertise and training. Deutsche Bahn also argues pilots carry more responsibility than train drivers.

''There could be a quick deal without another train being affected,'' he said. ''But if Mehdorn turns stubborn, we'll strike more than the Bahn chairman can imagine.'' German media reports today quoted top Bahn officials saying they would offer the GDL a separate labour contract, although it was unclear if it would include the term ''wage''.

The mediation efforts of former economy minister Werner Mueller at a meeting between Mehdorn and Schell late on Thursday appears to have contributed to a looming breakthrough, according to a report in Der Spiegel magazine today.

Mueller insisted that Mehdorn and Schell sit next to each other at the talks. The two viciously attacked each other in public for months. As Schell spoke, Mehdorn was eating from a pile of hamburgers on the table placed in front him.

After Schell finished his speech, Mueller urged Mehdorn to ''put the hamburgers in the middle so Herr Schell can eat some too''. Once Schell ate a few of the hamburgers Mehdorn ordered, ''the ice was broken,'' according to one source at the talks.

Deutsche Bahn, which the government wants to partially privatise by 2009, is Europe's largest rail and transport firm. It serves more than 5 million passengers daily on 28,000 trains.

REUTERS GL BD1900

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