German rail union hits industry with freight strike

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BERLIN, Nov 8 (Reuters) German rail workers started a 42-hour strike of nationwide freight routes at noon today, a walkout that threatens to disrupt manufacturers by halting deliveries of raw materials and just-in-time supplies.

Pushing their dispute over higher wages to a new level, the GDL train drivers union rejected an offer from Deutsche Bahn for a new round of talks and will strike from midday today until Saturday at 6 a.m. (local time).

The walkout looms as the most disruptive chapter of the dispute since the union began a series of shorter strikes against the railways in July. Most walkouts to date have affected local commuters.

Economists estimate each day of a freight strike will cost the national economy 50 million euros initially, but that the damage could quickly multiply after just a few days and the daily toll rise to 500 million euros after a week.

''It's just not right that a rebel union can cripple Germany -- and damage not only the railways but the nation's entire economy,'' Margret Suckale, a Deutsche Bahn executive, told German television today.

''They are jeopardising jobs across the country,'' she said, adding she was disappointed that the GDL had quickly rejected an offer on Wednesday for a new round of talks. ''The GDL has an obligation to return to the negotiating table.'' Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected a request by Bahn executives to intervene.

The GDL union, the smallest of three rail workers unions representing 34,000 train drivers, turned down a 4.5 percent pay rise agreed by other unions in July. It also rejected a later Deutsche Bahn offer of a 10 per cent pay rise.

The GDL says its members are underpaid compared with counterparts elsewhere in Europe and is seeking pay rises of up to 31 per cent and an independent collective labour agreement.

Until now, the union had focused on short strikes on local commuter lines of up to one day. While causing inconvenience, those strikes had little economic impact. But the union won a court ruling allowing strikes on long-haul and freight routes.

The most recent 30-hour strike cost Deutsche Bahn over 10 million euros, the company said. Its freight subsidiary Railion has daily turnover of 17 million euros that will be all but wiped out by the freight strike.

But the freight strike will hurt other companies and the economy as a whole. About 18 per cent of goods transported travel by rail, especially raw materials. The rail strike will quickly snarl the nation's major ports, Hamburg and Bremerhaven.

Reuters MS RN1656

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