FRANKFURT (AFP, Reuters) - German train drivers began their longest strike in 20 years Wednesday in a bitter labour dispute that will mar travel for millions during 25th anniversary celebrations of the Berlin Wall's fall.
The GDL train drivers' union called the strike - the sixth walkout since September - starting with freight services on Wednesday afternoon and spreading to passenger services on Thursday.
The stoppage is scheduled to last until early Monday next week, meaning it will hit the weekend celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, where as many as two million visitors were expected to travel to the German capital, many by train.
In addition to the nationwide rail services, the strike will also affect the local suburban or S-Bahn train networks in Berlin and other major cities across the country.
The national railway operator Deutsche Bahn is hoping to maintain around one third of services, but has warned that major delays could be expected.
GDL has come under fierce criticism from all quarters for its industrial action, since it is only a small union with around 19,000 members, compared with a total Deutsche Bahn workforce of 196,000 in Germany and more than 300,000 worldwide.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who rarely comments on industrial disputes, called on train drivers Wednesday to act with a sense of proportion, saying a way must be found to limit the damage done to the country. She said mediation between the GDL union and rail operator Deutsche Bahn was an option.
"I can only appeal to their sense of responsibility to find solutions which do the least possible damage to us as a country - while maintaining the right to strike," Merkel told reporters.
Deutsche Bahn management slammed the walkout as "pure bullying".
"While people in Germany are looking forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9, GDL wants to paralyse public life in our country with the longest strike in the history of Deutsche Bahn," the company's head of personnel, Ulrich Weber, raged.
GDL has accused Deutsche Bahn of stonewalling in talks over workers' demands for a 5-percent wage hike and a shorter working week of 37 hours.
Union leaders also want to represent other groups of employees within Deutsche Bahn such as conductors, catering staff, dispatchers, and not just drivers.
Travellers in Germany have also been hit recently by repeated walkouts by pilots working for airlines within the Lufthansa group.
The government is working on legislation to stop small groups of employees from crippling large parts of the country's transport infrastructure, such as rail and air travel. A draft law is expected this month.
The mass-circulation daily Bild accused GDL and its leader Claus Weselsky of being power mad.
Overall public support of the train drivers seems to be low.
"Normally everyone, including politicians, feels some sort of solidarity with strikers. But in this case, it's a conflict about more influence. That can't be the aim of a strike," said Soeren Bartol, responsible for transport issues within the Social Democrat SPD party.
Other unions, including the DGB trade union federation, have also distanced themselves from the GDL.
Industry associations are increasingly concerned about the negative effects the industrial will have on the economy as a whole, particularly at a time when the German economy - Europe's biggest - is struggling with slowing growth.
Several days of strikes will hit production "because rail transport can't simply be replaced by road or river transport," said Achim Dercks of the DIHK chambers of commerce federation.
The chemicals sector will be particularly hard-hit, but also the auto and metal-working sectors, because "they effectively have no alternative means of transport," said the BGA Federation of German Federation of Wholesale and Foreign Trade.
"There will be huge delays in the value chain," it said.