RARELY has this column found it necessary to address labour relations in Germany. We turn to the topic in the wake of a bitter 10-month dispute between the management of Deutsche Bahn and the drivers' union GDL.

Industrial action halted DB's passenger and freight services on many occasions last year, reaching a low point on December 20 when GDL threatened an unprecedented all-out strike. DB had held out against demands for a 30% pay rise but was eventually forced to concede an increase of 8% from March 1 2008 with a further 3% from September 1, as well as a one-off payment of €800 to cover the period from July 2007 to February 2008. In addition, the working week will be cut from 41 h to 40 h from February 2009.

Germany's two other railway unions had agreed earlier to rises of 4·5%, which GDL considered unacceptable. This was partly why the drivers' union chose to fight for the right to negotiate separately - something which DB Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn was reluctant to concede. When a deal was brokered at a meeting convened by Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee on January 12, DB was obliged to give in, setting an unwelcome precedent. A formal agreement was to be signed by January 31.

This comes as another attempt is being made to find a way to sell part of DB AG to the private sector - the parliamentary transport committee is expected to unveil a revised formula this month. With wage costs markedly higher, DB is likely to prove less attractive to investors - which may of course have been GDL's objective all along.