IMAGE: PUBLIC WORKERS PROTEST
Ronny Hartmann  /  AFP-Getty Images
German public workers rally at Hanover's Opera Square on Tuesday.
updated 3/4/2008 1:07:47 PM ET 2008-03-04T18:07:47

Thousands of bus and train drivers, preschool teachers and waterworks employees walked off their jobs Tuesday in an effort to win higher pay for German public service workers, while train drivers threatened new walkouts in a separate dispute.

The public service strikes hit most of Germany's 16 states, but the effort was focused on northern and eastern cities, the ver.di service workers union said. The union plans to expand the strikes Wednesday to cover major airports, including Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne-Bonn. Airline Lufthansa AG said it would cancel 142 domestic and European flights as a precaution but not its transcontinental routes to the United States and elsewhere.

The pay dispute comes amid concern in Germany over perceptions that wealth from the country's recent economic upswing is being distributed unfairly.

Over recent weeks, companies including automaker BMW, household goods manufacturer Henkel KGaA and mobile phone manufacturer Nokia Corp. have made high-profile announcements of job cuts despite healthy earnings.

While employers point to the need to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized economy, unions argue that workers deserve their share of Germany's economic improvement after years of wage restraint.

Ver.di has called for a raise of 8 percent for Germany's 1.3 million public service workers, backdated to Jan. 1.

The government has countered by offering a 5 percent increase over two years, accompanied by a longer working week, but ver.di rejected that offer. A new round of talks with employers is scheduled for Thursday.

Early Tuesday, the walkouts halted public transport for several hours in the central city of Hanover, which is hosting the annual CeBIT trade and technology fair. Municipal office workers in the north and east of the country also stayed off work.

In Berlin, ver.di is seeking pay increases of up to 12 percent for employees of the capital's transport system. Subway, tram and bus workers planned to launch a 10-day strike on Wednesday.

In a separate dispute that has bubbled for months, GDL, the union representing train drivers, threatened to launch an all-out strike against the nation's rail network next Monday unless national railway operator Deutsche Bahn AG signs off on a wage agreement by Friday.

Union leader Manfred Schell accused Deutsche Bahn of dragging its heels on applying a wage agreement reached in January to all of its members, including those employed by a subsidiary company.

That agreement foresaw an 8 percent raise effective March 1; another 3 percent starting in September, and one-time payments of 800 euros ($1,180) per driver to cover a period dating back to July 1.

Deutsche Bahn personnel chief Margret Suckale insisted that "we will not let the negotiations fail at this point."

Deutsche Bahn carries some 5 million passengers daily.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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