“Lufthansa has lost support among the workforce”

Frankfurt, Berlin In the wage dispute between the ground staff and Lufthansa, Verdi negotiator Christine Behle hopes for a solution in the coming round of negotiations. “We have great hope that the breakthrough will succeed,” said the deputy chairwoman of the union in an interview with the Handelsblatt before the talks that began on Wednesday.

However, Behle does not rule out new strikes either. If the negotiations are still far apart, her union will examine further industrial action after the massive warning strikes last Wednesday, said Behle, who is also deputy chairwoman of the group’s supervisory board.

“A result in the third round of negotiations is also crucial because otherwise there is a risk of labor disputes slipping into the peak travel season,” said the trade unionist. August and September are the busiest months in aviation. However, as a precaution, another two-day round of negotiations has already been scheduled for the end of August.

Irrespective of the ground staff’s wage dispute, Lufthansa pilots also voted in favor of strikes in a ballot. Behle sees the problem that the company has put the collective bargaining partners and the works councils under pressure, for example by founding new airlines. “The pandemic has now made the camel overflow,” said the trade unionist. “In our estimation, the leadership has lost its support.”

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The trade unionist emphasized that there must now be “a sustainable wage increase” for ground staff. “The last collective bargaining round was in 2018, since then the employees have waived their salary because of the pandemic in order to get Lufthansa through the crisis in a stable manner.” In addition to the percentage increase, there is also a struggle for a minimum amount, from which lower pay groups in particular should benefit.

Read the full interview with Christine Behle here:

Ms. Behle, has Lufthansa’s negotiating team contacted you since the warning strike on Wednesday?
No, she hasn’t.

Do you expect a solution from the third round of negotiations, which starts on Wednesday?
Absolutely, we have great hope that the breakthrough will happen. We deliberately scheduled the meeting for two days in order to be able to discuss the many topics. By the way, there is another two-day round at the end of August, which we scheduled as a precaution.

Deputy Verdi Chairwoman Christine Behle

“We now need a sustainable wage increase.”

(Photo: dpa)

And if it doesn’t work out, are new strikes imminent, during the peak travel season in August and September?
I can’t give a general answer to that, it depends very much on the status of the negotiations that we have then reached. If we are still far apart, we would of course consider new industrial action.

A point of contention besides the money is the term. Verdi demands twelve months, Lufthansa wants 18 months. Are you willing to compromise on runtime?
For the employees, a rather short term is extremely important. No one can say how inflation and the economic situation will develop. The last collective bargaining round was in 2018, since then the employees have waived their salary due to the pandemic in order to get Lufthansa through the crisis in a stable manner. That is why we now need a sustainable wage increase.

Read more about the situation at Lufthansa here

Above all, they want to strengthen the lower salary brackets, and Lufthansa wants that too. Why are you not satisfied with management’s proposal?
Our proposal is a tariff increase of 9.5 percent, with a minimum amount of 350 euros. This would have the advantage that these 350 euros work up to an income of around 3700 euros. Lufthansa offers a fixed amount of 250 euros. The proposal for a fixed amount is not bad, but it needs to have a certain scope in order to have an upward effect. 250 euros are not enough for that. It is also problematic that the Lufthansa proposal wants to base a further increase on company results. That would be a blank check for an uncertain future for employees. We reject that.

The warning strike was violent. What was your calculation? Would you rather just cause a lot of pain and hope that a quick solution can then be found?
It was important to us to give a clear signal before the third round. The employers’ proposal has a reasonable structure in some respects. But we are still quite far apart. A result in the third round of negotiations is also crucial because otherwise there is a risk of labor disputes slipping into the peak travel season. August and September are the busiest months in aviation.

Could the Verdi warning strike also help to cut the knot in collective bargaining for other professional groups, such as pilots?
I can’t say that, the situation with the pilots is also completely different.

Angry ground staff, frustration in the cockpit and in the cabin: is Lufthansa about to lose the support of the workforce?
From our point of view this is indeed a big problem. Lufthansa has taken measures in the past – such as founding new airlines – that have put pressure on the collective bargaining partners and the works councils. The pandemic is the last straw. In our estimation, the leadership has lost its support.

Aviation was grounded for a long time due to the corona. Do you have no understanding at all that management cut staff during the crisis?
I can partly understand that. Lufthansa had to think about how to start again after the pandemic. Airplanes have been shut down, which means fewer staff are needed. Those were the right steps to lead the company stably through the pandemic, but an attempt should have been made to keep some of the employees and not let them go through severance payments. There were misjudgments when planning the ramp-up. Training for pilots and cabin crew, for example, started too late.

Was the rapidly increasing desire to travel really foreseeable?
There were enough hints, also from our side. There was already a peak in bookings last summer, including at Christmas and Easter. Lufthansa ignored this information. My impression was that Lufthansa was trying to carry out flight operations with a fundamentally smaller crew.

“The attractiveness as an employer stands and falls with an attractive remuneration”

Has the management fully grasped the frustration of the employees?
Not yet the management as a whole, but some of them are aware of the tricky situation. Michael Niggemann, the HR Director, shows understanding for the situation of the employees in the discussions.

Lufthansa now wants to hire again and has been an employer with great appeal so far. How much of it is left?
The attractiveness as an employer stands and falls with an attractive salary. Lufthansa has lost a lot of its appeal here in recent years. Many specialists have also left the company in the administrative area. Lufthansa must try with all its might to become attractive again.

But Lufthansa can’t do magic either, they’re looking for staff everywhere.
In the past, Lufthansa has scored well with a good combination of attractive pay, an interesting job and incentives such as cheap flights. If Lufthansa pays fair market remuneration, the company should be able to find the necessary staff again.

>> Read here: Airport chaos: does poker for training costs exacerbate the lack of control staff?

Aren’t the personnel problems also due to the fact that the value of flying as a product has been lost?
I do not believe that. Of course there are effects like flight shame. But vacations and travel are still very important to people.

Lufthansa machines at Munich Airport

Verdi does not rule out new industrial action in the wage conflict.

(Photo: AP)

You are also the Deputy Chairwoman of the Lufthansa Supervisory Board and as such are committed to the well-being of the company. How do you reconcile this role with that of union leader calling for industrial action at great cost to the company?
This is of course a tightrope walk. However, I strictly separate both roles. In addition, we are a team of three, we distribute the tasks. For example, I am not responsible for the strike leadership.

The staff shortage will not be easy to resolve. Do you have any information as to where the employees who are now missing on board and at the airports have gone?
We have several effects here. On the one hand, long-serving employees at the airport have retired. Then employees found new jobs in logistics. In some cases, high incentive premiums are used there. The train also adjusts very strongly. These are jobs that are more attractive than shift work at the airport with long working hours for little money.

But Verdi negotiated the tariff conditions at airports. Are most employees there no longer paid according to collective bargaining agreements?
Yet. There are about 30 companies providing ground services at airports. All have a collective agreement with Verdi. But the competition is strong, the cheapest gets the job. This has led to a downward spiral in wages. In order to break through this, we have been working for some time on an industry collective agreement for everyone. The talks were interrupted during the pandemic, but we are now on the home stretch. I assume that the negotiations will be largely completed by the end of the year.

There are calls to nationalize ground services like security checks again. Do we need officers at the security checkpoints?
No! I know the discussion. We have many private companies that do a good job, but are dependent on the guidelines of the federal police. But she does not have a full overview of the situation at the airports. There is no proper control here, that’s the problem. We therefore vote for this control to be placed in the hands of the airports.

>> Read here: Flight chaos: the federal government does not rule out the reorganization of aviation security controls

At the end of the year, preparations for the collective bargaining round for the public sector will begin. Can you already indicate where the journey will take you?
The member survey will run until mid-October. However, it is already becoming apparent that the focus of our demands will be on the issue of remuneration, above all on balancing out inflation.

You have a champion there. The metallers are demanding eight percent more money. You won’t be able to stay under that, will you?
I don’t think we’ll stay there.

Are we already in the middle of a wage-price spiral?
This is a fairy tale. It’s an invention of people who don’t want unions to enforce such high wages. There has been no evidence in the past that wage demands fuel inflation. At the moment we are seeing more of a profit-price spiral. Companies are using the current situation to drive up prices. That fuels inflation.

Ms. Behle, thank you very much for the interview.

More on this: Despite the travel boom: Business at the airports is only slowly recovering

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