BERLIN - Flexing their muscles before the restart of negotiations in the coming days, Germany's train operators said they would strike again in early January after their unions accused the national railroad, Deutsche Bahn, of "not moving one jot" during lengthy talks that temporarily ended months of disruption across the domestic passenger and international freight routes.
The threat of more strikes comes at a sensitive time for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative-led coalition government, which shares power with the Social Democrats.
The coalition has been rife with divisions in recent weeks, ranging from the cost of child care and protecting children from neglect, to how far to extend a minimum wage to other sectors of the economy.
Analysts said the cantankerous atmosphere inside and outside the coalition also foreshadowed election campaigns next month and February in three states. They said these elections would test public support for the "grand coalition," which has been in power now for nearly two years.
"The threat of more strikes, the minimum wage issue, and other disputes all have a political impact," said Gero Neugebauer, political science professor at Berlin's Free University. "Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats each have to weigh the political price in responding to these disputes."
Manfred Schell, leader of the train operators' union, said during the weekend that "we will begin strikes from Jan. 7 and will end them only when we feel we are on the way to an acceptable wage deal."
Schell, so far, has won public support for his stance, unlike the situation in neighboring France, where unions recently went on strike to protest against the reduction of decades-old privileges and benefits for certain sectors of the French economy. Germany's train operators had for decades been part of the collective-bargaining mechanism for the railroads. But Schell broke away from that system, saying the interests of the 34,000 operators had not been adequately represented.
The train operators originally demanded a 31 percent pay increase but over the past few weeks indicated they might accept a 10 percent hike, under certain conditions. Deutsche Bahn has said it had offered pay raises of 8 to 13 percent. The other 195,000 rail employees have already accepted a 4.5 percent increase, making the train operators the last to hold out but also the most powerful in this sector, which has been earmarked for privatization by the Merkel government.
The privatization plans have hit several obstacles in most of the 16 German states. Because the infrastructure of the federal network affects every state, the regional governors wield considerable influence over the privatization.
The railroad negotiations, which signal the growing power of smaller interest groups, are part of a bigger change taking place in Germany. The other, analysts say, is the issue over a minimum wage, which exists in many other EU countries but not Germany, where each sector and union agrees its own pay structure.
The coalition has been divided over this issue after employees at Deutsche Post, which loses its monopoly for letter delivery services on Jan. 1, managed this month to obtain a minimum wage. Economists said it could signal the start of a trend for other sectors.
Merkel's conservative bloc has been indecisive over a national minimum wage, with some members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, supporting it but the Christian Social Union, its sister party based in Bavaria, strongly opposed. Some say it would raise unemployment because employers would lay off workers due to higher wages.
The Social Democrats, who support the introduction of a minimum wage, said Sunday the party would make the issue one of its central themes during state election campaigns.