German train drivers staged a record-long strike against state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) on Wednesday, ignoring criticism and appeals from passengers, business and government.
The strike began with DB's freight train drivers laying down their jobs as planned on Wednesday afternoon. It will involve passenger train drivers from early Thursday and last till next Monday.
Ahead of the strike, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for both sides to keep retrained, recommending mediation as an option for solving the problem. However, German train drivers union GDL rejected an earlier proposal from DB to take the dispute to arbitration.
GDL leader Claus Weselsky said the union would not enter into a conciliation procedure in short term.
The union is demanding a 5-percent higher payment and two-hour shorter working week for DB's train drivers. The latest talks over the dispute failed over last weekend.
DB said it would try to maintain at least one third of its trains running with replacement schedule. However, long-distance and regional trains, as well as S-Bahn services in cities were expected to be interrupted.
"Millions of passengers will certainly be affected," said Ulrich Homburg, chief of passenger transport in DB.
GDL was flooded by criticism after it announced the four-day strike, making it the sixth walkout since September this year.
Passengers have been fed up with repeated strikes in recent months. A 50-hour strike by train drivers in October, coinciding with school vacations in nearly half of Germany's states, forced many passengers to change their plans.
This time, the strike came on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall over the weekend when many events were scheduled to be held in the capital city.
"We exceedingly regret that there has been no negotiated solution," said Pro-Bahn, an association for German public transport passengers.
"The union of the train drivers and its chairman Claus Weselsky can no longer put everything on one card, uncompromising and wipe all settlement proposals from the table," added it in a statement.
The strike was also condemned by business and political figures. Anton Boerner, president of the Federation of German Wholesale, Foreign Trade and Services, warned that the strike would threaten industrial production and cause significant losses, as railway transportation was essential for factories.
"There will be significant delays in the supply chain," said Boerner, adding that chemical, metal and auto industry would be particularly affected.
"The GDL is annoying throughout Germany," said Germany's Social Democratic Party parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann in an interview with local media, accusing the union of abusing rights to strike.
The proposed law regarding the bargaining unit was "more urgent than ever", he said.
German government is drafting a law to oblige companies to negotiate only with the biggest union over wages. The law aims at preventing small groups of employees from paralyzing the country's infrastructure through strikes, and is scheduled to be launched at the end of this year.