Stop the infection of Berlin transport workers!

In the month of January, 197,454 residents of Berlin were infected with the highly contagious Omicron variant. This total includes 62,194 children and young people and about 2,000 teachers, along with many of those employed by the city’s transport company, the BVG.

Increasing numbers of workers are affected, rendering them unable to work while new coronavirus patients are being admitted to Berlin’s hospitals on a daily basis. The warning light for hospitalisations is already on red.

Transport in the city has been severely hit by staff shortages in the public transport system (ÖPNV), with cuts to services across the board.

The only effective measure against these mass infections is a total lockdown for a few weeks with local transport operating on an emergency basis. To eliminate the virus and protect the population, only essential workers, sick persons and medical personnel should have access to transport. This is the only feasible alternative to protect health and lives, but this solution has been categorically ruled out.

By contrast, Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) has announced that “infected people without symptoms should continue to work in exceptional cases.” Contact tracing and contact quarantine have already been phased out, with PCR testing prioritised, although testing laboratories are unable to keep up with demand. The Berlin state administration, a coalition of the Social Democratic Party, the Left Party and the Greens is brutally pressing ahead with the policy of mass contamination advanced by the federal government, a coalition of the SPD, Greens and neo-liberal Free Democratic Party.

The pandemic measures authorised by the BVG executive are completely inadequate! They correspond to the guidelines laid down by Berlin’s Health Senator Ulrike Gote (Greens), which perpetuate the lie that vaccination and the wearing of masks are sufficient to combat the virus. The considerable dangers of an Omicron infection are being systematically downplayed.

The BVG management, the company’s joint works council and the bureaucrats of the public service workers union, Verdi, do not care about saving lives. Their priority is guaranteeing profitability and their own incomes. As for the state government and the municipal employers’ association, their main concern is that transport workers continue to ferry workers to their workplaces, and the more than 330,000 mostly unvaccinated children and young people to the city’s coronavirus-infested schools.

The coronavirus attacks not just individuals, but all of society. Including unreported cases, at least 15 million people worldwide have already died from the virus. We, in the Action Committee, foresaw this danger as early as 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, because we based ourselves on the warnings of scientists. We had already warned in February 2020 that the type of work we do made us vulnerable to infection.

Then, as now, the BVG’s claim that there were no chains of infection within the workforce is not credible. For 2020/2021, it announced 782 infections, as well as the death of two BVG employees, but since then, both the executive and Verdi have remained silent about the rate of illness in the workforce.

The Berliner Zeitung cited Verdi secretary Jeremy Arndt who declared: “The situation is tense,” while the Tagesspiegel reported an increase in sick leave of 50 percent two weeks ago. According to the rbb24 news outlet, one in 20 public transport services have been cancelled in Berlin.

The workforce, however, the people affected, are kept in the dark! When the WSWS asked the BVG press office for information, the latter responded: “We don’t publish sickness figures, especially as they are subject to fluctuation.”

The BVG installed protective screens in buses last summer, but they do not effectively shield drivers from the virus-laden air in buses! The screens and the favourable study the BVG received from the city’s Charité hospital on the effectiveness of the “anti-spit screen” (which has still been withheld from the public) are solely aimed at justifying the reopening of the buses’ front doors and the sale of tickets by the driver.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Verdi has ignored our concerns and hindered our struggle for infection controls in the driver’s workplace. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the union announced it was necessary to accept that there was a “general risk of becoming infected”—i.e., including at the workplace. From the start, the union has sought to justify our exposure to the virus. Our opposition to the official contagion policy is a clearly a thorn in Verdi’s side.

We all know what a collective effort it took back then to force even the most minimal of protective measures: tapes to cordon off the row of seats behind the driver’s seat, plus the closure of front doors and the associated suspension of ticket sales by bus drivers.

We then intensified our protest against the company’s irresponsible policy, especially in relation to the reopening of the front doors. We formed an action committee to expand our struggle independently of both the union and works council. Only then did Verdi representatives change their stance and reluctantly organise a hypocritical protest.

The Action Committee warned at the time: “Verdi’s current protest action cannot hide the fact that union officials are fully on the side of management.” This warning has been completely confirmed.

We remain in conflict with the supervisory board and management, the Berlin Senate and the in-house union, Verdi. They have not said a single word about the danger we face in the midst of the Omicron wave of infection! Instead, last autumn, Verdi quietly agreed to a new contract with the BVG executive and the municipal employers’ association. When one takes inflation into account, the contract amounts to a wage cut and contains no real improvement in working conditions.

We can change this. We are not alone. Tens of thousands of workers here in Berlin and elsewhere are seeking to end this never-ending spiral of contagion and poverty. As public transport workers, we are not only amongst those hardest hit by the policy of contagion, our resistance is also of utmost importance in putting an end to it and mobilising the whole working class.

We demand:

• An immediate lockdown as part of an international strategy to eliminate the virus, with public transport reduced to emergency services as soon as possible! Special buses should be equipped with adequately protected personnel, special equipment and disinfection measures!

• FFP2 masks must be compulsory at every workplace and for drivers in buses. Front doors must be closed along with the suspension of ticket sales by the driver, and the first row of seats behind the driver cordoned off until the conversion to emergency operations is completed!

• Full pay for all workers and teachers, no sanctions for sick leave!

• Free PCR testing for all suspected infections and immediate quarantine with full pay until the PCR test certifies a negative result! The best medical care to be made available for Long Covid cases!

• The weekly disclosure of infection figures to the workforce and the action committee, broken down into Corona and other infections!

Brothers and sisters, we need to step up our fight against infection and for better working conditions. We know of two colleagues whom we lost in the second wave of the pandemic. The probability that there are more is very high—but there must be no more victims!

We are not alone. In Europe, including the UK, and around the world, resistance to pandemic policies and their effects is growing. The recent bus drivers’ strike in Romania, where the unions—like ours—tried to defuse the workers’ grievances by colluding with municipal officials and management, underlines that the struggle requires a complete break with the unions and their reactionary policy of “social partnership.”

Join our Action Committee for Safe Workplaces!