German govt pushes for deal to end rail strikes

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BERLIN, Nov 11 (Reuters) German government leaders today urged striking railway workers and the national railways to return to the negotiating table to settle a wage dispute just days after Chancellor Angela Merkel had declined to intervene.

Sounding a note of alarm after a paralysing 42-hour freight strike last week, Economy Minister Michael Glos and Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee appealed on the GDL train drivers' union and rail managers to end their dispute.

With the train drivers threatening new strikes this week to back their claim for higher wages after the 2-1/2 day walkout to yesterday that was called the most damaging in Germany ever, Glos and Tiefensee warned the strikes were harmful to the economy.

''We need a quick agreement once and for all,'' Glos told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. ''The robust economic upturn is already being burdened by the high oil price and a strong euro. In an environment like this, a strike that hampers freight transport is poisonous for the overall economy.

''Both sides need to be reminded about their responsibilities to the overall German economy and to consumers,'' he added.

Tiefensee admonished state-owned Deutsche Bahn, which had tried in vain last week to get Merkel to intervene, to find a solution with the train drivers' union. He said the railways can ill afford such damage to its image and the nation's economy.

''The government can't be the referee nor interfere in wage talks,'' he told the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper. ''But the two sides need to stick to the facts. Right now it's producing gigantic economic loss and damaging Deutsche Bahn's image.'' Although rail strikes in Germany are rare, Deutsche Bahn said the freight strike was the most damaging the country has experienced and it will take weeks until traffic is normal.

Strikes before that only inconvenienced local commuters.

The train drivers' union has said it will decide tomorrow or on Tuesday whether to strike again on freight as well as passenger and long-haul services -- unless Deutsche Bahn presents a new offer in the months-long pay dispute by tomorrow.

The freight strikes paralysed around 90 per cent of goods routes and cost the economy 50 million euros (73 million dollars) a day, according to economists. That can rise to 500 million euros a day if the strikes last a week or more.

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

The union 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 GDL began a series of short strikes in July, directing most of its initial action at local commuter services.

Reuters SBC DB2107

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