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German cabinet passes bill to curb strike power of small unions

[BERLIN] The German government has approved a draft law to limit the power of small labour unions whose strikes have paralysed train and air traffic in recent months, by making a wage deal with the largest union in a company applicable to all employees.

"We are reinforcing the majority principle," said Labour Minister Andrea Nahles, after Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved the bill on Thursday morning, sending it to parliament for debate early next year.

Mr Nahles said that the power of smaller unions to force company-wide stoppages of pay and conditions threatened Germany's generally harmonious labour relations.

Industry bodies have called for a change in the law to stop unions like Cockpit, which represents about 5,400 pilots at Lufthansa, from being able to halt the entire operations of a company that employs more than 110,000 people.

The GDL train driver union's strikes at state-run railway Deutsche Bahn in recent months have affected 5.5 billion people who travel by rail each day as well as industries that rely on rail freight like automakers, chemical companies and steel producers.

Economists estimate the rail strikes have cost the economy up to 100 million euros a day by forcing assembly lines to suspend activity because of supply shortages.

The striking pilots and train drivers have been pilloried in the media for stranding travellers on holiday weekends and even Ms Merkel, who usually remains silent on industrial disputes, has urged the train drivers to act responsibly.

However, her government was eager to avoid the bill - drawn up by the labour ministry, which is run by Ms Merkel's centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners - from looking like an attack on workers' rights.

"The unified tariff regulation does not affect the right to industrial action," reads the draft law. The president of Cockpit, Ilja Schulz, said it was unlawful and was bound to be"shipwrecked" when challenged in the constitutional court.