March 15th, 2008


The strike that hurt -- and helped -- no-one

A working citywide public transport system is a wonderful thing. But, weirdly enough, a non-working citywide public transport system can be beautiful too.

For the last ten days, Berlin has had no buses, no trams and no U-bahn trains running. Drivers have been demanding a 12% pay increase. They're now indicating that an increase of between 3% and 9% might be acceptable, and that they might return to work tomorrow. One reason this long strike hasn't got the drivers what they wanted is that it's hurt almost nobody.

Spiegel reports that while the strike has been on, the city of Berlin has been saving a million euros every two days (the city subsidizes its transport system to the tune of €500,000 a day). The strike also hasn't really hurt BVG, the company which operates Berlin's public transport. Most people already have seasonal or annual travel passes, so BVG gets paid whether it runs transport services or not. They won't refund pass holders because the S-Bahn network, which the passes also cover, is still running.

Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung reported that BVG's daily ticket sale losses were offset by savings in salaries, electricity and fuel -- handy, since the company has debts of €850 million. The strike has the two parties it was presumably designed to hurt -- the city and the transport company -- throwing their poor-but-sexy hats in the air.

But what about ordinary people, people who have to get around Berlin? Hasn't the strike been incredibly disruptive? Well, yes. The air quality and private traffic volume in Berlin has been noticeably worse during the strike. Hisae tells me that some people are making 40 minute walks to her college from the nearest S-Bahn station, which isn't near at all. Small businesses have started suffering too.

Some small businesses, that is. Others -- bike shops, for instance -- are doing their best trade in years. Everybody in this city has at least one bicycle, and over the last fortnight they've been getting their rides refurbished, buying new ones, pumping up tyres and wobbling around the streets. People think nothing of cycling five kilometers to an event, and five kilometers back. On the physical fitness level it's been great. There is a downside, though -- old people who haven't cycled in years are endangering themselves and others by wobbling diagonally across pedestrian crossings. The weather has been windy, wet and dangerous. A Japanese friend of ours was actually hospitalised when her bike was hit by a car. Overall, though, it's been great to see Berlin's already-huge cyclist contingent doubled. I certainly feel fitter.

If the strikers aren't really hurting the city, the company, or the public, they must have the workers and the socialists on their side, though, right? Actually, no. The World Socialist website isn't impressed at all. For them, the strike by public employee union Verdi is all a big conspiracy designed to soften the public up for eventual privatisation of the transport and water systems (Verdi members work in both). The socialists criticize Verdi for making the dispute solely about pay rather than bringing in the issue of privatisation.

"The setting up of a transport subsidiary (Berlin Transport—BT) and the systematic driving down of wages are not aimed at fending off privatisation, but are rather direct preparation for such a measure," says World Socialism. "Verdi is intent on organising the strike in a such a way that it runs out of steam and increasingly encourages a public backlash against the strikers."

What backlash? A Berliner Morgenpost poll showed 57% of Berliners were in sympathy with the walkout. We're far too busy backpedalling to backlash!

There has been one ill-effect, though. An archipelago of mould was spotted on the surface of a glass of red wine in an art gallery on the Invalidenstrasse. I'm not quite sure how the industrial action caused it, but a photograph of the wine was titled "What happens during a transport strike". If the Verdi union bosses think this mould is going to soften us up for a culture of privatisation, though, they're drinking rotting wine from their hands. Theirs is the strike that hurt -- and helped -- no-one.