Germany: Work stoppages and protests planned against government attacks

“We are witnesses and protagonists of a newly- now unstoppable- broad social protest movement in Germany. The mood…amongst the population, and even more in the workplaces and councils, has turned in the past weeks”. (From a special issue of the ver.di (united public sector and services union) paper, 4 November).

Within a month of the 100,000-strong march in Berlin against Schroeder’s vicious austerity package, ‘Agenda 2010’, more than 100,000 people have taken to the streets and participated in strikes in many cities and across the Germany. This clearly reflects a stepping up of resistance to the government attacks.

In the regional state capital of Hessen, 45,000 people – partly as a result of strikes- took to the streets. 10,000 lobbied the SPD (ruling social democrats) party congress to express their anger with the government’s policies (which were backed by the congress).

A strike wave of university students has erupted in four regional states. The students are out to protest against cuts in university funding and the threat to increase or introduce tuition fees. 20,000 students marched in Berlin on 27 November, and another 10,000 last weekend.

At the same time, numerous workplace meetings will take place in the course of the next week to discuss issues and possible protests relating to wages, conditions and national and regional collective bargaining. The bosses want to use the state and change the respective laws to enable them to attack the working class more easily. The bosses are eager to reduce or even scrap past gains, such as Christmas bonuses and holiday money. They also want to try to introduce contracts that will be based on individual negotiations between the employee and the employer, in order to substantially weaken the workforce’s capability to collectively fight back against bosses’ attacks.

Work stoppages and protest rallies have taken place in a number of work places, such as at Volkswagen Baunatal and Salzgitter, in which 7,000 workers participated. The metal union, IG Metall, plans further actions in the coming days and weeks. Very often the question of wages and conditions is directly linked to Agenda 2010, which includes major attacks on the national health services, as well as attacks on the rate and duration of unemployment benefits. This was indicated by a protest action of Daimler/Chrysler workers in Bremen, who carried one banner saying: “Italy, Spain, France- General strikes successful! When do we take strike actions against Hartz?” (Hartz is the government advisor associated with initiating the cuts).

The pressure inside the trade unions is immense. This became obvious in reports from shop steward meetings and meetings of trade union officials and is reflected at the top of the trade unions. After the 1 November demonstration, the trade union leaders had to announce they are going to prepare for a mass demonstration next spring and will also step up protests against attacks on wages and conditions. The 1 November demonstration was organised from below and against the will of the trade union bureaucracy, which was worried about the mass turnout. They are now trying to organise protests themselves to keep the movement under control and cause as little damage to the government as possible. It is an open question as to whether this works, given that workers will use these actions to not only let off steam but to also increase pressure on the government and the trade union tops.

In Saarlouis, a small town in the Western Germany, for example, 7,000 workers – instead of the expected 1,000- participated in a work stoppage to express their anger.

That the trade unions are more interested in keeping the movement in check is also reflected in a spontaneous walk out of 900 Ford workers in Cologne. The workers protested against mass lay-offs while the shop stewards and trade union officials put the emphasis on negotiations.

There is also a great feeling for unity amongst students. This was expressed in a motion put forward by SAV (German CWI) members at a students’ assembly in Kassel, calling for joint actions with workers and for the German DGB (German TUC) to organise a general strike. 1,000 students voted in favour of this motion and 20 voted against.

Germany is at a turning point and is probably awaiting a hot winter and an even hotter spring.

Agenda 2010 marks the attempt to break up the welfare state and to finish off major achievements and concessions the working class won through struggle over the past decades. Subsequently, this will lead to a major drop in living standards if the government’s plans are not stopped by decisive mass protest and by industrial action by the working class. At the same time, the opposition Christian Democrat’s (CDU) party conference imposed an even more neo-liberal agenda. This right wing party pushes through cuts and attacks at local and regional government level, which are met with resistance by workers in industry and public sector workers, as well.

One day general strike

The big success of the 1 November demonstration sped up political consciousness and the pace of the class struggle. There is a sense of urgency, from the point of view of the working class, to speed up struggle since most of the laws relating to Agenda 2010 are due to be passed in parliament on 19 December.

Unfortunately, the SAV proposals for immediate action were not supported at a conference of activists held on 30 November. The majority of people at the meeting wanted to set up a German Social Forum, which unfortunately might just turn out to be a talking shop.

Still, on the 17-18 January 2004, a “future conference” is taking place to discuss programme and strategy for future protests. This meeting is organised by trade union activists, unemployed organisations, Attac (the anti-capitalist movement), as well as groups from the left. One SAV member was elected to the preparation committee.

It is always difficult to predict the full scale of future protests but it is clear that a new phase in the class struggle has opened up in Germany. This will see a qualitative increase in demonstrations and strikes. Amongst the rank and file inside the trade unions there is a great openness for the idea of a general strike as a next step to fight Agenda 2010. It is clear, however, that the trade union bureaucracy will do everything to prevent this happening. It is up to the trade union left and the left in general, to advocate the call for action, to explain the need for a general strike and how to successfully campaign for this demand.

A one-day general strike could shatter the government’s plans and would boost the self confidence of the German class, as well as acting as an inspiration for the working class internationally.

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December 2003