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BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is set for days of transport chaos after a train drivers' union called a strike from Wednesday over pay and negotiating rights, threatening to disrupt this weekend's celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The GDL union announced a strike lasting more than four days, the longest in the history of rail operator Deutsche Bahn [DBN.UL], a day after talks between the two sides broke down on Monday.
The long stoppage and its timing are highly contentious in a country that relies heavily on its high-speed rail network, and GDL leader Claus Weselsky has been reviled in the media.
The GDL, which represents just 20,000 of the railways' 196,000 workers, said on Tuesday the strike would affect freight traffic from 1400 GMT (0900 ET) on Wednesday and hit passengers from 0100 GMT on Thursday. It will end at 0300 GMT on Monday.
The union argues that state-owned Deutsche Bahn has provoked the crisis by denying it the right to negotiate on behalf of 17,000 train stewards. It also seeks a 5 percent pay rise for drivers and a shorter working week of 37 hours, down from 39.
GDL said it had to negotiate on behalf of all its members, whether drivers, stewards or trainers. "This basic right is in danger and along with it the very function of unions," its leader Weselsky said.
Deutsche Bahn said it would try to maintain a third of all train services. The network carries 5.5 million passengers and more than 620,000 tonnes of freight each day.
"This call for the strike leaves me speechless and is nothing but chicanery," said Ulrich Weber, a member of the company's board. "At a time when the people in Germany will be celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the GDL wants to cripple public life. We call upon the GDL to stop the strike and return to the negotiating table."
It is the latest in a series of strikes. In mid-October the union staged a 60-hour strike over a weekend, halting two-thirds of long-distance trains and leaving millions of passengers stranded at the start of school holidays.
Germany's DIHK chambers of commerce described the planned strike as "poison for Germany as a location for business".
"Apart from the irritation for holidaymakers, freight strikes result in production disruption in just a few days because train transport can only rarely be shifted to road or ships at short notice," said Achim Dercks, deputy managing director of the DIHK.
The Cologne Institute for Economic Research estimates that a train strike of more than three days could cost the economy up to 100 million euros ($126 million) a day if firms have to halt assembly lines. Nearly one-fifth of freight traffic in Europe's biggest economy is transported by rail.
Strikes in Germany are rare, with employers and larger unions usually able to resolve their differences at the negotiating table.
GDL's attempt to raise its influence by negotiating for other railway workers is a move that politicians have criticized and want to curb. The government is working on a new law to limit the power of smaller unions like the GDL.
Its plans have gained speed after eight strikes so far this year by the Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) pilots' union at airline Lufthansa over pay and early retirement benefits.
Separately on Tuesday, German cabin crew union UFO said it wanted to create a new union grouping for airline industry staff in response to the new law, which it says would drive a wedge between different unions.
(1 US dollar = 0.7971 euro)
Writing by Erik Kirschbaum and Madeline Chambers; editing by Mark Trevelyan