What a Mess 3/8 Transit, Mail, Garbage Workers Stage Mass Walkouts
Apr. 27, 1992
BERLIN (AP) _ A rich society used to precision and order stood aghast Monday as garbage piled up in streets, mail delivery halted and transportation collapsed so dramatically that even bike paths were paralyzed.
Germany's public employees, demanding higher wages to cope with the costs of unification, opened what they said would be a week of unprecedented walkouts by idling buses, street cars and trains throughout the western portion of the nation.
''This is traffic chaos. The autobahns are full,'' said Berlin cabbie Udo Vojahn, 33, who was enjoying a booming business shuttling irate subway and bus riders to work. ''I don't even have time to count my money.''
Scattered strikes in other sectors hindered or halted mail delivery, garbage pickup, shipping traffic and air transportation.
The strikes were the biggest manifestation of the widespread resentment in west Germany over the costs of bailing out their eastern German neighbors.
The public employees union is demanding a 9.5 percent pay increase to compensate for 4.7 percent inflation and tax increases imposed last year to bail out the troubled east.
''We're sick of it, that every burden has to be carried on our backs,'' said Berlin city garage mechanic Uwe Nitzgen.
The strikes come at an inopportune time for Germany, which has seen its dynamic economy hurt by the global recession and mounting bills to revive east Germany and aid the former Soviet Union.
The state and federal governments say they cannot afford the increases sought by their employees, and economists warned the wage pressures could worsen Germany's slowdown and increase inflation.
Inflation, a key ingredient in the social and economic maelstrom that led to Adolf Hitler's rise to power, is deeply feared in Germany.
About 75,000 employees took part in the strikes, said Public Service and Transportation Union board member Wolfgang Warburg. Some locals vowed to stay out until their demands were met, while others planned to return as early as Tuesday.
Striking transit workers were joined in some areas by sanitation and and other public employees.
Postal workers in 30 locations have been on strike for three days, creating a huge backlog of undelivered mail. Postal union officials have vowed to expand their strike to telephone service.
Harbor workers stayed home in the huge port of Hamburg. Rail workers there blocked a depot for high-speed trains.
The big cities of Cologne, Berlin and Frankfurt were paralyzed by traffic congestion.
''It took an hour and a half to drive two kilometers (about a mile) through town,'' said Berlin commuter Holger Hintze, 39.
In Frankfurt, the banking capital, uncollected garbage piled up on the streets and marred a sunny spring day.
The strikes did not take place in former East Germany, where workers are covered by a different set of labor agreements.
But the effects were not unnoticed. Thousands of east Germans who rely on public transportation to get to jobs in west Germany were stranded.
In a bit of bleak nostalgia, subway lines once again stopped at the gateway to the once-forbidden West.
West German public employees, although their wages vary greatly, make a base starting wage of about 3,000 marks ($1,818) per month.
Like all west German workers, they enjoy some of the best health and vacation benefits in the world.
But while attention has focused on the economic woes of east Germans, west Germans also say their living standards are worsening.
''I feel 50-50 about the strike,'' said Harro Minkowski, 57, a striking Berlin bus driver. ''We need more money. But this (strike) causes so much chaos.''
Like many others, Minkowski was running errands on his bicycle, but not even cyclists could avoid the crush. The little stoplights that Germany uses to regulate bike paths were clogged by jostling commuters.
The public transportation strikes appeared to herald unrest in the private sector. Germany's biggest union, the IG Metall metalworkers, announced warning strikes on May 6.
The union representing 400,000 east German retail workers warned of a strike if negotiations on a new contract continue to falter.