German rail union starts freight strike

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BERLIN, Nov 8 (Reuters) Hundreds of German rail workers walked off the job today at the start of a 42-hour strike of freight routes that threatens to disrupt manufacturing.

The GDL train drivers union rejected an offer from Deutsche Bahn for a new round of wage talks and stopped work at noon (1100 GMT). They plan to stay out until 6 am on Saturday.

The walkout may be the most disruptive chapter of the wage dispute. The union began a series of short strikes in July and most action has so far hit local commuters.

''This strike will cost jobs -- and not only at the railways,'' said Deutsche Bahn board member Norbert Bensel.

About 18 percent of goods transported travel by rail, especially raw materials. The rail strike could quickly snarl the nation's major ports, Hamburg and Bremerhaven.

Each day of a freight strike will cost the national economy 50 million euros (73.2 million dollars), economists estimate. But the damage could quickly increase and the daily cost might rise to 500 million euros after a week.

Union leaders said 800 train drivers walked off the job on Thursday. There are 5,500 freight train drivers in Germany.

About 45 per cent are civil servants and barred from striking.

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

''It's just not right that a rebel union can cripple Germany -- and damage not only the railways but the nation's entire economy,'' said Margret Suckale, a Deutsche Bahn executive. ''The GDL has an obligation to return to the negotiating table.'' Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected a request by Bahn executives to intervene.

''If Bahn managers do not come up with a decent offer worth discussing, the strikes will spread to long haul passenger trains next week,'' said GDL deputy leader Claus Weselsky, referring to another especially profitable Bahn business sector.

''We're ready to take this to the next level,'' he said.

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

The most recent 30-hour strike cost Deutsche Bahn over 10 million euros (15 million dollars), the company said.


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