Berlin transit companies restrict bus services as schools return to German capital

The management of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (Berlin Transit Companies, BVG) has announced that it is restricting its regular bus services by 3% from August 22 due to a lack of staff. This concerns 32 of the 160 bus lines it operates in the German capital.

BVG bus fully occupied during summer vacation (WSWS)

Local public transport buses operate “at a somewhat reduced frequency”, as the OAG put it, precisely at the start of the new school year, when hundreds of thousands of children, young people and adults return to school and work after their summer holidays.

In other words, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with thousands infected, an extremely high number of unreported cases and the spread of monkeypox – Berlin is a national hotspot – millions of passengers will be in overcrowded buses every day.

The company explained the lack of personnel by a very high level of work stoppages among drivers. “The current development of the pandemic does not spare public transport companies”, explained the BVG press office two weeks ago, adding that “in combination with a tense situation on the labor market”, the operations bus “should be slightly adjusted after the holidays”.

The LPP is not the only company concerned. Deutsche Bahn (DB) Regio Nordost (the German rail company for the north-eastern region), for example, is already operating with a limited timetable of around 97% of its regular services, “in order to ensure stable rail traffic in the region,” according to the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg (Berlin-Brandenburg Public Transport Association, VBB), which is 100% state-owned. Here too, the increase in absences related to COVID is considered to be the reason. “Unfortunately, the current acute problem – COVID-related sick leave – cannot be solved with trivial measures,” the VBB said.

It is unclear how many reported absences are specifically attributable to coronavirus infections because “there is currently no obligation to report a coronavirus infection to the employer”, according to OAG press spokesperson Jannes Schwentu, in response to a request from the WSWS. But “due to voluntary reporting and the general situation of the pandemic, we are … very sure that COVID represents a decisive part of the absences”.

In other major cities in Germany and Europe too, transport companies, manufacturing and distribution companies, as well as health and education institutions, are experiencing massive staff shortages. This is particularly the case in Cologne, Bottrop, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Leverkusen, Wuppertal, Hamburg and Kassel.

Recently, official COVID infection figures, as well as increased colds, such as the summer flu, have increased so much that telephone consultations with a doctor are again considered sufficient to obtain medical leave from work. This underlines the dangerous development of the pandemic.

While coronavirus infections and reinfections, as well as a yet unknown number of unreported cases of Long-COVID, account for a considerable proportion of reported absences at Berlin transport companies, there is no public discussion. on an equally important reason for the labor shortage. The chronically catastrophic working conditions of some 7,500 drivers force many of them to leave the profession.

The workers are exhausted due to miserable working shifts of up to 9 hours and 20 minutes and a six-day work week. They also face insufficient turnaround times and enormous pressure to take on larger workloads, especially after 7 p.m. The buses themselves are poorly maintained and poorly cleaned and have not been properly sanitized even during the worst stages of the pandemic.

Added to this are the often broken air conditioning systems, which continued throughout the recent heat wave with record high temperatures of nearly 40 degrees Celsius. Temperatures for drivers exceed the outside temperature in some cases, as adequate cooling is not possible despite open windows and open doors at bus stops.

Dozens of young and newly trained bus drivers quit. This is not a new phenomenon at the BVG. Due to high turnover, management and union were forced to raise wages by up to 17% three years ago in order to become a more attractive employer in the labor market and retain staff existing. In fact, this salary increase has in no way compensated for the salary losses of recent years.

The poor working conditions and miserable wages are mainly due to Verdi, the BVG’s in-house union.

In 2005, Verdi strongly supported the then Berlin state government of the SPD and the Left Party by cutting wages by 16%. Many additional benefits have been removed and the pace of work has drastically accelerated. For example, whereas previously a bus driver traveled up to 50 kilometers in one shift, work performance rules have now increased to 150 kilometers per shift. In addition, a whole generation of newly hired bus drivers now receive 30% less pay than their older colleagues.

The political-economic context for this drastic deterioration in working conditions and wages has been the privatization of local and long-distance public transport in all Member States of the European Union. Only the transport company with the lowest personnel costs obtains market share for a few years.

Instead of calling on transport workers across the EU to fight together against the fragmentation and destruction of local and long-distance public transport, unions and companies insisted that in addition to the tendering, direct procurement should also be possible, but only if it is ‘market oriented’. This gave domestic firms an advantage over foreign competitors when awarding contracts.

But this advantage was paid for by the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs, the dismantling of old wage systems and the introduction of low wages, as well as a deterioration of working conditions. Passenger transport on “unprofitable routes” has been reduced or completely stopped.

To impose the spiral of lower wages and tougher working conditions on the workforce, Verdi and his apparatus of shop stewards and works councils continue to rely on the tried-and-true strategy of splitting colleagues through different wage rates, shifts and schedules. systems.

Verdi’s hostility towards bus drivers became particularly evident with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. “Infection, including COVID-19, is part of everyday life” and the “general risk of life,” according to the union, whose position was shared by the German Confederation of Trade Unions. The main slogan was that the buses run, whatever the cost! Only fierce resistance from the drivers forced the union and management to temporarily close the front door of the buses and take minor protective measures.

Numerous studies now show how great the risk of infection is in public transport, where hundreds of thousands of people gather every day in confined spaces. But all protective measures, except for a mask mandate on public transport, have been abolished by the Berlin state government. Compliance with the mask mandate is never monitored in practice. BVG management does not support drivers when dealing with COVID mask deniers.

It is thanks to the sense of responsibility of the working population, which represents the vast majority of passengers, that the mask obligation has been generally respected so far.

The government’s policy of mass infection, which will wreak havoc in the face of the highly contagious BA5 virus with the next fall wave, must be tackled alongside poor working and salary conditions. Current inflation and future price explosions as a result of the war and the German government‘s sanctions policy will further reduce the value of wages massively.

But such a struggle is only possible in opposition to the unions. Transport companies are increasingly operating globally, so transport workers also need to organize globally. The trade unions, on the other hand, advocate a nationalist perspective. They deliberately try to isolate the struggles of one country or region from each other. They are not on the side of the workers, but on the side of big business and the state.

BVG workers are not alone: ​​they have millions of allies: bus drivers in all cities, train drivers at DB and private operators, staff on the ground and on board airports, civil servants public, delivery services, Amazon and manufacturers. , as well as nurses and educators. All these workers face the same problems and enemies.

Workers must establish independent rank-and-file committees and link up with colleagues in Britain, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Austria, across Europe and around the world.

For this reason, transport workers should support the campaign of American autoworker Will Lehman in the fight for the presidency of the United Auto Workers (UAW). He stands not to reform the union apparatus, but to abolish it and politically mobilize autoworkers through a network of rank-and-file committees, not only in the United States, but around the world. entire.

This work is also continued by the Transport Workers’ Action Committee here in Berlin, which is a member of the International Alliance of Base Committee Workers (IWA-RFC).

James R. Rhodes