Germany picking up after long strike 420,000 return to public services

May 09, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- A workboat cleaning the dreck from the Landwehr Kanal chugged into Jurgen Nickel's lock at Kilometer 167 at about 8 o'clock on the morning after the end of the longest strike in Germany since World War II.

Mr. Nickel, an easygoing former seaman with an anchor and a crown tattooed on his left forearm, pushed a few buttons. The canal gate opened, water flowed in, the boat rose and slipped through into the placid, willow-shaded waters of a pond in Tiergarten park.

After 11 days the 150-year-old canal was once again in operation yesterday. Mr. Nickel and the rest of the 420,000 striking members of the transportation and public service workers union were back at work.

Trains, buses and subways ran again in Berlin and in most German cities in time for the morning rush hour. Airports were open. Postal clerks returned to work to sort 57 million letters. They are working overtime this weekend.

And it was perhaps symbolic that the first boat through Mr. Nickel's lock was scooping up dirt. The strike was beginning to make Berlin look about as trashy as any big U.S. city.

Garbage men picked up trash from most main streets early in the morning. Junk accumulating around the big Zoo bus-train-subway complex was gone by noon, and the only debris left was human.

"Stinker Strike Over!" said the headline in "Super!" (a tabloid apparently dedicated to preservation of the exclamation point).

Union and government negotiators reached an agreement that gives public service workers like Mr. Nickel an average 5.4 percent raise plus 200 marks as a holiday bonus.

German workers love vacations. They already work shorter hours and go on longer vacations and get paid better than almost anybody else in the world.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl says they are getting lazy, which may be why his party keeps losing popularity. The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper polls showed his Christian Democrats exactly as popular as the Social Democrats -- or as unpopular. Both major parties continue to lose support.

The fastest-growing party in Germany, east and west, is the Republicans, a radical-right party that preaches a kind of shrill populist nationalism that rakes up bad memories here.

The strike was the aberration in the German devotion to orderliness. People seemed pleased it was over.

"It's OK," said Mr. Nickel, the lock keeper. He does not know exactly what kind of raise he'll get.

But his job is not taxing. Tourist boats circling Berlin by water use his lock the most. He works in the kind of idyllic setting impressionists used to paint: lilacs blooming on the canal banks, trim white boats passing by and a cafe by the bridge overhead serving Kulmbacher Sandlerbrau.

Hans Meltzer, an economist at Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest, thinks the settlement is OK, too.

"The Bundesbank will grumble," he said of the central bank. "But in the end it will be tolerable."

He thought interest rates might even come down a bit by summer. German production will increase by about 1 percent this year, 1.75 if you include eastern Germany.

"I can't see any dampening effect from this settlement," Dr. Meltzer said. The strike cost about $300 million, he said, "digestible" for the economy.

A big question was the effect on the negotiations of the big metal-workers and printers unions. The metal workers staged lightning "warning" strikes at the end of the week. They want 9.5 percent raises from employers who offer 3.3 percent.

Dr. Meltzer figured it will be more difficult for the metal workers to strike now that the public service union has settled. They are better paid, and it will be unsportsmanlike for them to ask for more than the government union got. He said metal workers might get 5.6 or 5.7 percent, which would not be too bad for the economy either.

No matter what the economic predictions were, the weather was supposed to be sunny this weekend, just right for a spring boat ride through Mr. Nickel's lock, which he will be pleased to open now that the strike is over.

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