German bus and train drivers are striking with Fridays for Future. What do they have in common?

Transport is responsible for about a quarter of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Environment Agency.
Transport is responsible for about a quarter of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Environment Agency. Copyright Mika Baumeister
By Rebecca Ann Hughes
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Transport is responsible for about a quarter of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Environment Agency.

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Public transport workers and climate activists are two groups that have often been pitted against each other.

But next week will see the two coming together in Germany for a nationwide strike.

It marks the beginning of a partnership between the youth-led global climate movement Fridays for Future and Ver.di, one of the largest trade unions in Europe who represent 1.9 million service workers.

The campaign #WirFahrenZusammen (#WeDriveTogether) is fighting for better working conditions for transport workers and much-needed investment and reform to the public transport system.

Transforming the transport sector is critical to addressing climate change

Transport is responsible for about a quarter of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).

As such, climate activists are pushing for more investment in sustainable and eco-friendly public transport.

But the public transport sector across Europe is facing a critical moment due to cost-cutting measures, primarily at the expense of bus and train drivers.

“Our public transport system is about to collapse. Bus drivers are completely overworked, many of us are off sick and many of us aren't coming back,” says Mattias Kurreck, a bus driver from Berlin.

“Our shifts are getting longer, our breaks are pretty non-existent and we constantly stress about delays to the service.”

Working conditions are so poor that many are leaving the profession, and finding new recruits is posing a significant challenge.

“This isn’t something that can be solved in wage negotiations, it goes far beyond that,” says a spokesperson for Fridays for Future.

“We need substantial investments in public transport, and this must come from the government.”

By joining forces, Fridays for Future and Ver.di hope to demonstrate that this is a political issue that requires governments and local councils to find solutions.

“Bus drivers and climate activists might not be allies at first glance, in fact, we are often pitted against each other, but we actually have a lot of interests in common,” says Kurreck.

“We need proper funding for our public transport in order to reach our climate goals, and in order to better our working conditions. And we are so much stronger when we fight together.”

“I was sceptical at first, I didn't know what to make of these activists,” he adds. “Now I can not only say that these are my fellow campaigners, but that I am a climate activist myself. I am proud to be part of this movement.”

This is not the first time public transport workers have teamed up with environmental activists.

In the UK, rail union Aslef joined climate group Friends of the Earth (FoE) to demand more investment in the sector in order to meet sustainable targets in Scotland.

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It called for MPs to “outline the fundamental role that rail travel and public transport more broadly has in helping Scotland grow its economy and deliver on its challenging but necessary climate targets.”

Germany’s transport workers call for better working conditions

The joint Ver.di and Fridays for Future strike is focused on two main demands.

Transport workers are calling for substantial investments in public transport - €100 million by 2030 - in order to double its capacity in Germany.

They are also pushing for better working conditions. The demands vary between regions but centre around longer breaks, shorter working hours and more paid leave.

The combined strike by Ver.di and Fridays for Future will take place on 1 March.

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This follows a long running dispute between Ver.di and various transport companies including German railway operator Deutsche Bahn and airline Lufthansa.

The union has staged a series of ‘warning strikes’, a common tactic in German contract negotiations, in the rail, air and local transport sectors this year.

In early February, about 90,000 employees with the Ver.di union for over 130 local transport operators walked off the job in major cities across Germany.

The strikes have crippled public transport around the country and look set to continue after a round of talks between Ver.di and Lufthansa on 12 February produced no agreement.

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