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Bus Drivers Strike with Climate Activists in 57 German Cities

By Berit Ehmke and Yanira Wolf - Labor Notes, April 8, 2024

Public transit workers across Germany have broken new ground by coordinating our contracts—nearly all of them nationwide have expired over the last four months—and shutting down bus systems with strikes in 57 cities.

To add to the pressure, we’ve done something new for our union and for Germany: we’ve formed an alliance between local transport workers and climate activists, including the students who have been leading massive school walkouts.

The devastating effects of climate change are already rocking Germany: major heat waves, flooding, and water shortages. A growing movement demanding climate action has made real headway—our energy and industrial sectors have almost halved their climate pollution over the past 30 years. But on transportation, our third-biggest source, we’ve made nearly zero progress.

To beat climate change we need more buses on the road. We’re building a movement to double bus service. After three decades of cuts and privatization, we need a major federal funding boost.

But these jobs have become so tough that most agencies have huge worker shortages. To make the climate impact real, we’ll also need to raise the floor for wages, breaks, and schedules—making this a good enough job that workers will sign on and stick around.


What led our unions to try coordinated strikes? We’ve tried many other strategies since the huge cuts started in the 1990s, with little success. The 87,000 transit workers, mostly organized in our union ver.di, are split across 17 regional contracts; typically they bargain on their own, prioritizing job security. Workers across Germany ended up with very different wages and working conditions.

By 2017, rider numbers had been growing for years, but ravaging cuts had made the transit system dysfunctional. Delays, cancellations, and overcrowding were daily hassles. System cuts meant longer working hours, long unpaid breaks between paid shifts, no chance of using a toilet during a shift, fewer weekends off, stalled pay increases, and angry passengers. Thousands left the driver’s seat, and few chose to start.

To end this defensive spiral, many union activists thought we would have to become a synced force at the bargaining table, even if our contracts were legally separate. We organized local meetings and regional “action conferences” to find common goals and develop a united strategy.

In our 2020 contracts, members decided to line up the next expirations in nearly every state in 2024. This allowed us to plan two nationwide strikes this year: one on February 2 for 24 hours, and another starting on February 29 for 48 hours, timed to coincide with a big climate action day March 1. Each region could also plan several more strikes between January and now.

Another new idea: we’re fighting for “minimum standards.” We compared contracts to see who had, for example, the fewest paid holidays, longest hours, lowest weekend pay, and least paid time off for union activities. We made it a priority at every bargaining table to raise up the lowest local provisions and lift the national floor.


Our strikes were meant to make sure politicians and the media could not ignore us. But we knew striking wouldn’t bring much economic pressure, since our employers rely on government funds. We needed public opinion and popular movements on our side.

In 2019 activists with Fridays for the Future, a youth organization that has led weekly school walkouts, had approached ver.di union staff with an idea for joint action. Many staff organizers thought the alliance was a good idea, and proposed it for members to discuss and decide on. We were not able to implement the whole campaign at our first attempt in 2020 due to the pandemic, but we were able to build upon it.

In local strategy meetings around the country, members decided to give the new coalition a try. Together, climate organizers and transit workers founded the alliance #WirFahrenZusammen (“We ride together”), calling for better working conditions and expansion of public transit as two keys to meeting Germany’s climate goals.


Nationwide alliances can be hollow—they have to be filled with life locally. At first, transit workers often mistrusted climate activists. A few even left the union in protest. Some saw climate activists as annoying, privileged cyclists who flouted traffic rules. Some climate protesters had used roadblocks as a tactic, which delayed buses and made the job harder.

So organizers put a lot of effort into arranging meetings where union members and climate activists discussed campaign plans together. Young climate activists, most of them women, joined older bus drivers to ride along for a whole shift and hear about the job. Others went to bus yards and listened to workers in each department.

Starting on the global climate action day last September, we organized a public petition from riders and allies, supporting the union demands on working conditions plus the political demand to add €100 billion to federal funding for local transport ($109 billion) by 2030.

As activists collected thousands of signatures, more union members saw the value of the alliance. By March, 200,000 people had signed. People could also sign up to get invited to the next local meeting or action.


Where activists and workers started to trust each other, our meetings and rallies grew more vibrant. The young activists introduced creative tactics—new chants, confronting politicians at talk shows and offices. They introduced interactive elements at meetings or rallies, like collectively marking the dangerous spots in town for bikes, pedestrians, and bus drivers on a map. Rather than just standing at the bus depot gates, strikers marched through dozens of cities.

Climate activists brought their Fridays for the Future experience and networks, but what helped even more was their sincere curiosity to learn from workers, and their willingness to adapt and stand back when needed.

Workers started inviting activists to participate in union meetings and speak at gatherings. Activists and workers set up shared Whatsapp groups. We built joint committees to decide on campaign action plans—where all could contribute, but workers had the final word.

Gradually, in shop after shop, workers and climate activists built personal bonds. Even doubtful workers were impressed when activists showed up to strike lines with cake and coffee at 3 a.m., then joined eight-hour picket shifts.

We’re still in negotiations, but we’ve had one big victory already: people and movements came together who otherwise don’t.

Student activists now better understand transit workers and their lives. They learned how to join people from different backgrounds in democratic decision-making and disciplined actions, and they witnessed the power of the strike.

Bus workers have gained just as much. We learned creative new tactics, enlivened our meetings and picket lines, and finally felt some recognition for our important jobs.

It would be too much to say that all the workers are climate activists now. But we have a new outlook: driving a bus is a climate job worth fighting for, and we don’t have to fight alone.

Berit Ehmke and Yanira Wolf are staff with ver.di, Germany’s second-largest union with 1.9 million members, mainly in service jobs, including nurses, postal workers, teachers, and bus drivers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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