Berlin. Old Karl Marx would surely have been happy to see them: on the boulevard named in his honor, the Karl Marx Allee in what was once East Berlin, at countless buses were lined up in good, German-orderly rows. Though they were tourist buses of every size, color and advertising slogan, their passengers were not tourists, but union members, about 200,000 of them. They looked happy enough, especially when they climbed out, often after five, six and more hours on the road and pre-dawn departures. But they were angry all the same, angry enough to make the trip and join this giant crowd, which was matched by about 100,000 each in the northwestern city of Cologne and the southwestern city of Stuttgart.
The demonstration near Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate was to register their protest. It was an irony that the government they were protesting about was not made up of right-wing parties, but rather a coalition between the Social Democratic Party, for which most of them certainly voted, and the once leftwing Greens. The Social Democrats, led by Gerhard Schroeder, were first voted in because of the right-wing policies of Helmut Kohl’s government, and reelected because Schroeder and the Greens’ Fischer opposed involvement in the Iraq war. But now they were cutting deeper and deeper into all the gains won by working people in years and decades of struggle, some going all the way back to Chancellor Bismarck in the 1880′s.
First there was medical insurance, the pride of Germany’s working people, still far ahead of the rip-off methods in the USA, but now being cut, piece by piece, with new fees for visits to doctors and dentists, with steadily rising prices for medicine, hospital care, eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures. Then there were the pensions, also ahead of US social security, but steadily eroding with stagnant rates but new charges, which, for those with the smallest pensions, were beginning to prove disastrous.
Most alarming, perhaps, were the cuts in jobless insurance, planned for the coming year, which will drastically cut payments to those unemployed for longer periods, forcing them down to welfare levels – and threatening to cut all payments unless they are willing to take any job offered them, no matter how unrelated to their trade and how badly paid. At the same time, previous safeguards against getting fired have been reduced, making jobs less secure than ever. With approximately 4 1/2 million unemployed currently – the official figures – pressures are building up from all directions.
To make matters even worse, state and municipal employers are now demanding a longer work week – up from the 38 1/2 hours achieved in past years and going back to 40 or even 42 hours. Social Democrat party leaders are joining these attacks. The right-wing oppositional parties are demanding that a longer work week should also become the rule in private industry. “We must all make sacrifices,” they say, and claim that somehow this would help reduce the unemployment figures. Even here, Schroeder and other government leaders have totally failed to contradict them.
While some of the demonstrators came from the Hamburg, Lubeck and Hanover areas of northwestern Germany, the greatest number were from the east, the area of the former German Democratic Republic, where a huge proportion of the industrial base was closed down right after German unification. Thus, while unemployment in Germany as a whole is close to 10 percent, it is nearly double that in the East, and in some areas 25 percent and more, causing emigration to the west at an alarming rate, especially by young people who see few chances at home of learning a trade or getting a job.
Some of those demonstrating recalled that in the “bad old German Democratic Republic”, constantly denounced in the media even thirteen years after its demise, there were neither unemployment nor any medical fees, and there was almost total job security.
Chancellor Schroeder and his associates have publicly decided to ignore the protests. All their so-called “reforms” are necessary, they claim, if Germany is to maintain its status in the world economic scene, and if big companies are to be dissuaded from moving eastwards where wages are far lower. The same threat is being used all over Western Europe, but increasingly in Eastern Europe too, with the resulting attacks on wages and social welfare all over the continent.
A threatened breakaway from the Social Democratic Party by disgruntled members, especially in the union movement, is still in the discussion stage, with Schroeder and his partners issuing dire warnings against any members involved. The Party of Democratic Socialism, which opposes the Schroeder “reforms,” is currently represented in the Bundestag by only two delegates, and the party is partially limited by its participation with the Social Democrats in two state governments. It still represents a threat, in East Germany especially, however, which helps explain why big flags with its initials, waved in front of the speakers’ platform during the demonstration, were carefully cut out of national TV news reports.
Although the road ahead seemed rocky enough, the protests marked a new level of activity and independence by the unions, who were closely allied to the Social Democratic Party in the past. Dissatisfaction is growing rapidly in the country, the polls show a severe drop in popularity for the Social Democrats – now about 29 percent – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the anger. The button worn by most participants said “Aufstehen” – “Stand up” and many observed that although results of the protests were uncertain, they certainly had a greater chance to achieve changes by standing up and fighting than by resigning to their fate.