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Workers across Germany's transportation system are on a 1-day strike

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Europe's biggest economy is paralyzed. Tens of thousands of workers across Germany's transportation system are on a one-day strike. Nearly all train and plane travel is cancelled while workers demand wage increases to deal with inflation. NPR's Rob Schmitz is at Berlin's Central Station. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So I take it you are at what normally would be one of Germany's busiest train stations. What does it look like today?

SCHMITZ: Well, this is about as empty as I have ever seen it here. In the background, you can hear this...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: ...Which is this kind of looped recording saying that there is a strike today. There are no trains running. And there are similar scenes being played out across this country at some of Europe's largest transportation hubs today. Deutsche Bahn, which is Germany's national railway, has essentially shut down all train travel inside Germany today to deal with the strike.

But this goes beyond trains. Some of Europe's biggest airports - Frankfurt, Munich, the list goes on - have grounded most flights. Nearly 400,000 passengers have had flights cancelled and even local public transportation inside Germany's biggest cities are impacted. Subways, ferries, buses are not running routes today.

MARTIN: So that's a big deal. So what's behind it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Well, the unions that represent the workers are asking for wage increases of between 10 and 12%. Deutsche Bahn and other public employers are only offering a 5% wage increase. Workers are asking for more because they're saying their wages have not kept up with high inflation that has plagued Europe since this past year and has been worsened by high energy prices as a result of Russia's war in Ukraine.

MARTIN: So this can be hard to gauge. But do you have a sense of public opinion - whether Germans who are not transportation workers support this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, we've spoken to several people here this morning and for the most part, there is support for these strikes. Franziska Strobel told me she generally supports these workers. Here's what she said.

FRANZISKA STROBEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And Michel, she's saying here that railway workers have the right to strike and that she's heard many of them are stuck with minimum wage jobs where they make around $13 an hour. And that's wrong in this day and age with prices rising as quickly as they are. But she did say that she hopes the workers do not strike during the Easter holiday that's coming up, when millions of Germans take vacations, because that would be extremely disruptive. Unions have not ruled that out.

Her feelings on this seem to echo the rest of the country. According to a survey taken last week, only a small majority of Germans are sympathetic to worker demands. Fifty-five percent of people surveyed consider the strikes justified. Thirty-eight percent said they didn't agree at all with worker demands, saying they were asking for too much.

MARTIN: I understand that this strike is the latest of several in Germany. I think a lot of people may remember that there are also big strikes in France to protest changes in the pension system there. Is this connected somehow?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the protests in France have to do with raising the official retirement age, and these strikes in Germany are crippling transportation because workers feel they deserve better wages. But in many ways, high inflation is impacting all of this. Here in Germany, prices are up nearly 10% over last year. The cost of food, gas, heating - you name it - has skyrocketed. And people are spending more for all of this while making roughly the same amount they've made for years. So there's growing frustration among workers throughout Europe that life is getting more and more expensive and their future may not be as bright as they once thought it would be.

Now, the European Central Bank has tried to address inflation the same way the Fed in the U.S. has, through interest rate hikes. But that's proven to be dangerous too, because that's made life more difficult for banks and the markets in general. And we've seen plenty of problems in the financial sector here in Europe, including a near bank failure with Credit Suisse. So European leaders are certainly struggling to address these problems.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Rob Schmitz. He was with us at Berlin's Central Station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.