Germans drive or walk as public workers strike

April 28, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The day started wet and gray and threatened to get uglier as wary Berliners tried to get to work, to school, to doctors, or to beauty parlors with their public transit system shut down by the closest thing to a nationwide general strike since World War II.

"I always wanted to walk to work," groaned one secretary under an umbrella on West Berlin's main drag, the Kurfurstendamm. "Now I am, and it's raining." She'd gotten up before six to get to work at 9 at the telephone company. And she may be on strike herself before the end of the week.

The 2.6 million members of Germany's public service union, the OTV, are leaving their jobs in strikes spreading across the country. The OTV represents workers as diverse as mail sorters and grave diggers and bus drivers.

"We're striking against employers and their offer but not against the citizens," said Monika Wulf-Mathies, the leader of the OTV.

OTV union members were leaving mountains of mail unsorted, closing kindergartens, blocking freight traffic on canals. And "the citizens" of Germany seemed to be in a kind of gridlock shock as transit workers in a dozen cities stopped buses, streetcars, elevated trains and subways.

"Are you late for work?" a man asked the woman getting into a cab in Moabit, a working-class neighborhood like Baltimore's Highlandtown.

"No, I have an appointment at the sauna and I'm not going to miss it."

But the strikes disrupting cities throughout the country seemed to be symptomatic of profound political and economic troubles in a country that until three years ago seemed immune to them.

The revered Hans-Dietrich Genscher quit after 18 years as foreign minister yesterday just as traffic stalled all over Germany. Economists have began to talk about Germany as "the sick man of Europe."

And another 6 million members of white-collar, metal and construction unions threatened walkouts by the end of the week.

In Berlin, the sun broke through about the time stores opened. Berliners remained cheerful and unhurried even though there were traffic jamseverywhere.

Drivers were stuck breathing carbon monoxide as long as an hour in places like Potsdamerplatz, the major connecting route between East and West Berlin.

"Nothing goes there," a cab driver said. "And neither am I."

Potsdamerplatz was the first place the Berlin Wall was breached when Communist East Germany began to crumble in 1989.

In East Berlin, public transportation ran as usual yesterday. East and West German transit workers belong to different unions and negotiate separate contracts.

Subway and elevated trains rattled up to the last stop in East Berlin, then headed back to where they started. Bus routes that crossed the old border were shut down.

East German commuters were hurt as much as anyone by the strike. About 150,000 East Berliners work on the west side, most of them transit riders.

Early in the day, Checkpoint Charlie, once a border post where U.S. and Soviet guards faced each other down, was probably the quietest place in town.

Tourist buses couldn't fight through downtown traffic, and the old checkpoint was left in an eerie silence.

Eberhard Diepgen, the mayor of Berlin, pleaded for car-pooling.

Fat chance, or its German equivalent, said a taxi driver who likes rock-and-roll oldies. He was stuck more or less immovably in a traffic circle.

"Everybody who has a driver's license is on the road today," he said.

"It's not in the nature of Berliners to offer rides," said a Humboldt University student as she waited for a bus in East Berlin. She watched what she called a "stau," a jam, form on the street in front of her.

"Wild," she said.

Airports throughout Germany remained open but nobody could get to them. In Berlin, the roads to Tegel and Tempelhof filled immediately and remained stalled all day long.

At the end of the day the Zoo Palast, the big downtown movie palace, had canceled evening shows of 'Hook" and "Beethoven." Things were getting serious.

The transit workers talked about taking a "pause" in their strike today. But Berliners and most of the rest of Germany could still look forward to garbage piling up, more undelivered mail and the threat of walkouts by hospital workers.

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