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People walk under the sign reading 'Please do not board' at the main train station in Frankfurt, Germany May 5, 2015.RALPH ORLOWSKI/Reuters

In a country where the trains are known for running on time, commuters are getting an unpleasant shock this week: many of them are not running at all.

Germany is grappling with what could be its longest railway strike in decades, the culmination of a protracted dispute between labour union GDL and Deutsche Bahn, the rail operator.

The work stoppages started Monday night with freight trains and spread to passenger railways on Tuesday morning, confounding commutes and snarling traffic. The union has called for the disruptions to continue until Sunday unless a deal is reached before then.

Business groups estimated that the strike could cost the economy several hundred million euros and said it would cause particular problems for the steel, automotive and chemical industries. Such strikes are "poison for a highly developed industrial economy" like Germany, claimed the Federation for German Industry in a statement.

The strike is the latest and most dramatic example of how labour frictions are on the rise in Germany. German unions occupy a powerful role in the economy, negotiating sector-wide wage agreements and holding seats on company boards of directors. There is a long tradition of collaboration between labour and management to boost productivity and competitiveness. Lately, however, unions are driving a harder bargain as they seek a greater slice of Germany's current prosperity.

While extended transportation strikes are not uncommon in other European countries, Germany has managed to avoid them – until now. Deutsche Bahn has called the strike "completely inappropriate and excessive" and urged passengers to brave the crowded trains and platforms. About one-third of long-distance trains are running, the company said. Meanwhile, commuter trains are running at anywhere from 15 per cent to about 60 per cent of normal frequency, depending on the location.

Politicians are not amused. Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the two sides to strike a deal using an arbitrator, a suggestion rejected by the union. Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the German tabloid Bild that "all parties must ask themselves if the damage this walkout could wreak stands in reasonable proportion to the actual dispute."

This week's strike is the latest of numerous work stoppages by the GDL union. The one prior to the current one unfolded just two weeks ago when train drivers walked off the job, disrupting cargo and passenger services for between two and three days.

There are several factors driving the dispute. One of them, not surprisingly, is money: GDL is demanding a 5 per cent pay hike. Deutsche Bahn has countered with an offer of a staggered pay rise of 4.7 per cent and a one-time payment of 1,000 euros. The union is also seeking a reduction in working hours and an annual limit to overtime.

However, there is another major sticking point. GDL also wants the right to officially represent other types of railway employees, not just train drivers, something Deutsche Bahn has resisted. GDL is the smaller of the two main railway unions and competes with its much larger colleague, the EVG union, for members.

One key question is whether ordinary Germans will lose patience with the hassles caused by the rail disruptions. "Both sides will fight over the public now," said Hajo Holst, a professor of economic sociology at the University of Osnabrueck. "The struggle for public opinion will play a very crucial role in the outcome."

Prof. Holst noted that Germans generally support strikes as a legitimate tactic. Then again, he couldn't recall experiencing a transportation disruption like this one. "Six days," he said. "That's long."