Sympathy wanes for German rail strikers on 3rd day

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BERLIN, Nov 16 (Reuters) Public sympathy for the union behind Germany's biggest rail strike seemed to be waning today when millions of commuters struggled to get to work in freezing weather.

The 62-hour walk-out by the GDL train drivers' union over pay has crippled goods transport and hit the steel and retail sectors, raising fears the strike could have a lasting impact on the economy if a solution is not found soon.

More strikes are possible from Tuesday, the GDL said.

Shipping containers piled up in Germany's largest port in Hamburg, authorities said. Only half the usual freight traffic was running in the northern city on the strike's third day.

Carmaker Audi has cancelled shifts at one plant due to parts shortages.

A Forsa poll for top-selling Bild newspaper showed sympathy for the strikers at just over 40 per cent, down from around 50 per cent in early October.

''I'm pretty fed up with this,'' said David Fekete, a car rental firm worker trying to get home after a night shift.

''It's about time the GDL gave ground.'' Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee said open-ended strikes would be bad for the economy.

''They would have highly visible and potent effects on the national and European economy,'' he told a German daily.

The strike ends at 0630 hrs IST tomorrow although the GDL has said it may hold open-ended strikes over Christmas and in the New Year if it receives no new pay offer. ''We can stick it out as long as we need to,'' a GDL official told news channel N24.

BAD FOR BUSINESS Some commuters wondered why Chancellor Angela Merkel had not intervened in the dispute, which has been running since March.

''She's the chancellor,'' said 63-year-old commuter Ute Becker at a Berlin station. ''The damage to the economy will be lasting.

It's totally incomprehensible to me.'' The GDL says its workers are underpaid compared with drivers in other European countries. It wants its own wage deal for its 34,000 drivers, separate from one agreed by other railway workers in July, which gave them a 4.5 per cent pay rise.

The union started a strike on freight routes on Wednesday and stopped passenger services at 0630 hrs IST yesterday. Budget airline Germanwings said booking for one-way domestic flights were up between 10-15 per cent thanks to the strike.

Germany's steel sector, which transports about half of its goods by rail, has been badly hit in the east and the steel association said open-ended strikes would be ''catastrophic'' for the industry.

Martin Wansleben, managing director of Germany's chambers of industry and commerce said the strike hurt Germany's image.

''One thing is clear: we can't hold out for ever. In the long term, the economic upswing will be at risk,'' he said.

Reuters PY DB2257

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