Germany: Struggles develop as crisis deepens

As has previously reported, Germany has witnessed a wave of protests and strikes both on the industrial and social fields, as well as series of student strikes, towards the end of last year.

The start of the New Year has seen the implementation of parts of neo-liberal “Agenda 2010” cuts programme but also ongoing protests.

Struggles develop as crisis deepens

Many of these protests and strikes were encouraged and inspired by the demonstration of 100,000 people of all ages that took to the streets in Berlin on November 1, many of whom stopped their shopping and joined the protest spontaneously. The initial proposal for this Berlin demonstration was made by SAV (Sozialistische Alternative, German section of the CWI) members in Germany as a way of building national opposition to the policies of Schröder’s Social Democrat/Green coalition. The response to this demonstration was an indication of the bitterness and anger that exists in German society at the present time.

After November 1, and before Christmas, at least 350,000 took to the streets in different protests throughout Germany. A common issue in all these protests was the rejection of the government’s so-called Agenda 2010, a vicious austerity package that in essence removes or severely undermines all the major achievements the working class has won in the past decades. In fact, Agenda 2010 represents an outright attack against all layers of the working class, and some sections of the middle class. Its intensity is comparable to what Thatcher did in Britain over a much longer period of time, but the pace of these attacks is much faster. It marks the end of Germany’s welfare state that was seen as one of the most advanced in the whole world.

Cuts being implemented

The beginning of the New Year however has seen the implementation of parts of Agenda 2010’s neo-liberal programme. From January 1, people have to pay a 10 euro levy every three months to see a doctor plus an extra 10 euro if they need a dentist’s treatment. Doctors have the right to send you home if you cannot pay. The levy is hardly related to people’s income, even people living on social benefits and people suffering from chronic diseases have to pay. Additional costs occur – and are no longer paid back by your health insurance – if you have to travel to hospital or a surgery for the treatment. Costs for medication went up as well.

Hospitals and surgeries have found themselves completely understaffed to deal with all the new paperwork in relation to collecting the money.

This has led to an outrage amongst the population and will probably result in people seeing the doctor less often; risking serious health problems in the future.

The tageszeitung, a German daily newspaper, reported that the health “reform” has already caused the death of an elderly man who needed regular dialysis treatment but could not afford the travel to the hospital and as a result died (January 20).

Action Conference supports strikes

This is just one more reason why the resistance and protests need to be stepped up during this year. An “action conference” with 500 activists and individuals including trade unionists, left organisations and Attac met in Frankfurt am Main on January 17 and 18 to discuss what further steps needed to be taken.

However at this meeting a sharp debate arouse around the question of which means of struggle should be used. A resolution, supported by members of Sozialistische Alternative, SAV, stated that “We want Agenda 2010 to be withdrawn, we want to stop social cuts, cuts in education and cuts in wages. We don’t want to assist in giving these cuts a more social outlook, but want to organise resistance. We fight for those aims at the European days of actions on April 2 and 3. Those days of action need to be prepared through regional and industrial actions up to and including strike actions.”

The mere mentioning of strikes was met by resistance from leading members of Attac, the anti-globalisation movement, who said they could not support such formulations. This was obviously an attempt by them to maintain their good relations with sections of the trade union bureaucracy, most of whom do not want to organise serious strike actions. This is the second time that leading members of Attac have tried to put a brake on initiatives that develop from below. They initially refused to support the idea of a national demonstration on November 1 because the trade union leadership did not officially call for this protest. Although some Attac leaders predicted this demonstration would be a failure, this did not prevent them claiming in the media that they organised it after the protest proved to be a significant success.

Nevertheless the resolution supporting strikes won a majority at the action conference and is a huge step forward in the sense that it can assist regional trade union leaders, shop stewards and activists in general to organise action and put pressure on the trade union leadership. It also reflects the fact that, given the sharp assault on living standards, more and more activists are coming to the conclusion that these attacks cannot simply be fought through demonstrations that take place on weekends. Increasing numbers are seeing that the struggle needs to be put onto a higher level, including strike actions to hit the bosses who stand behind Agenda 2010 where it hurts them most, in their profits.

Wage round – Struggle for better wages and conditions

Agenda 2010 is not the only attack on the working class that is taking place at the present time, the bosses’ organisations are planning further attacks as has become clear in the current wage negotiations in the metal sector. IG Metall, the metal union, had intensely fought for a 35 hour week without loss of pay in the 1980’s in the then West Germany. But now the bosses want to take back that concession and in the current wage round want to introduce a longer working week with little or no extra pay. Unfortunately it seems as if IG Metall’s leadership is not willing to seriously fight back but is heading for another rotten compromise or even betrayal.

Last year IG Metall organised a strike in eastern Germany to implement the 35 hour week in that area that was defeated when the trade union leadership called off the strike instead of organising solidarity strikes in western Germany. This defeat encouraged the bosses and now many are eager to finish off the right to free national wage bargaining and move to plant level agreements. In the metal industry many bosses want to remove the 35-hour week in west Germany and force workers to work longer with little or no extra payment. Already in the public sector many workers, especially teachers, have had their working week lengthened.

From the very start of the current wage negotiations, the national confederation of German employer’s associations (BDA) made it crystal clear that that they will use this wage round to implement so called “opening clauses”. This means that, for example, questions in relation to working hours and wages could then be negotiated on company or plant level through the shop steward committees and where these do not exist would be open to be negotiated on individual level, in face to face discussions between employer and individual employees. Many employers are demanding a change in the law to enforce the inclusion of “opening clauses” in all wage contracts. The aim is to break workers’ collective strength and allow bosses to have more control, imposing flexibility and lowering wages.

The trade union leadership’s unwillingness to effectively counter these attacks is indicated by the chairperson of the IG Metall who said: “Threats of strike actions should be avoided at the beginning of free national wage bargaining negotiations”(junge welt, January). In fact they gave in by immediately explaining their readiness to replace the “strict” rules that today only allow 18% of the workforce in one company to work longer than the official 35-hour week.

Union leaders said that they would refuse to accept unpaid overtime, “But apart from that, we are open to discuss anything”, the regional IG Metall leader Jörg Hofmann from Baden Württemberg said. [Baden Württemberg is a region in Southern Germany where many major car plants are based]. This attitude is a recipe for defeat and strengthens the determination of the bosses who in return said: “Without obligatory agreements for opening clauses on company levels, the metal employers won’t agree to a new contract with the metal workers’ union” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 12).

Once more, it becomes clear that the trade union leaders must be put under pressure from below and, if necessary, replaced by those willing to fight. However in order to successfully do so, the leadership needs to be challenged by the building of an organised rank and file movement inside the unions and workplaces.

While brief “warning strikes” may soon be organised by IG Metall in other industrial sectors longer strike actions seem to be more likely. Ballots are taking place for the 14.000 journalists of daily newspapers. This is the result of the breakdown of negotiations in which the employers demanded a reduction in holiday days of up to five days, a cut in holiday money by 25 % and an increase in the working week of up to 3.5 hours. If 75 % vote in favour of strike actions in the ballot, unlimited strike actions are possible, according to ver.di, the united services union.

Protests in the federal states

Not only are the working class, the youth, the unemployed under attack by the plans of the national government and the employers’ organisations, they are also faced with austerity packages by Germany’s 16 federal state governments. This has resulted in ongoing student strikes against the under-funding of universities and the threat to implement tuition fees in Thüringen and to some extent in Berlin. January saw a 30,000 strong midweek demonstration of parents, school students and teachers in Düsseldorf against cuts in state funding of 415 schools in North Rhine Westphalia that are state supported, but not official state schools.

The situation is especially dire in the federal state of Bavaria where the government is led by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian counterpart of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the traditional German conservative party. In recent decades Bavaria has become known as one of Germany’s most prosperous states. However the state prime minister, Stoiber, seems to be eager to be top of the cuts-league and prove himself appropriate to be the next German chancellor, something he failed to become in the last national elections in 2002.

He wants Bavaria to be the first federal state having a budget that does not result in any new debts. This year alone, Stoiber wants to cut 2.5 billion euro. “This seems to be a new record as is the number of protests against it,” writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 14. Already at the end of last year council workers were complaining that they could not deal with and coordinate all the notifications for demonstrations in Munich, while shop keepers were complaining that their sales had gone down due to “too” many demonstrations through its city centre.

In Bavaria protests continued this year. On January 10, 11,000 young people took to the streets in Munich to show their anger against the 30% planned cuts in the youth sector.

But what is to some extent even more significant is that the protests have spread to smaller towns, the strongholds of the CSU, as well. This year has seen the first protest outside the annual CSU conference in decades. Hundreds of forest workers, farmers, civil servants and students arrived to protest. “Six rallies, and all on the same day, that has never happened before” says Hannes Reich, a chief fire fighter. A common feeling of all the protesters is the feeling that they have been let down and betrayed.

The need for a new workers’ party

Despite all the anger and frustration amongst the Bavarian population, Stoiber scored another record high in recent opinion polls. According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, Stoiber’s CSU has reached 62% while the SPD (Social Democratic Party) that is in opposition in Bavaria but leading the national government, has only scored 20% in the same poll.

This in no way represents enthusiastic and solid support for Stoiber’s policy; it rather reflects the complete lack of an alternative.

It is not a surprise at all, that in 2003, the SPD nationally had to face their biggest loss in membership in 50 years. In total, they lost 6.2% (43,096) of their overall membership, with 38,500 actually sending their membership books back to the party’s offices.

This is just one of the reactions to the SPD’s key role in pushing through the neo-liberal agenda and, in so doing, trampling on many of the ideals such as “solidarity” which its supporters thought that it stood for. There is tremendous bitterness towards the SPD’s drastic embrace of neo-liberalism. Just one example is that this year will see an actual cut in old age pensions. Significantly there is hardly any opposition to this from within the declining SPD ranks to this policy, at its recent Party Congress Schröder’s policy was overwhelmingly supported.

Today there is no party in Germany with a strong national or regional representation that does not conduct or support neo-liberal policies. Every single national party is involved in governments, either at a national or federal state level, which are carrying out attacks. This includes the PDS that is helping to implement austerity programmes in Berlin and in Mecklenburg/West Pomerania.

It is the lack of a fighting party with a clear anti-cuts programme that makes people sick of the parties they have voted for before. All the parties accept the ruling class’s demands that living standards must fall. Increasingly voters either chose to vote for what they see as the so-called lesser evil or, in what might become a more significant feature, stay away from elections.

The frustration and even alienation from capitalist society is felt even stronger felt in east Germany, the former GDR that was promised prosperity if it accepted capitalism in 1990. A recent long-term study that interviewed young east Germans on their attitudes and views revealed that less than 10% of the participants trust the present system to provide a solution for the urgent problems of humanity or think it is the only human form of society for the future. Around 40% of the participants agree with the statement “I would prefer a reformed, humanistic socialism rather than the present system”. There is only little satisfaction with the capitalism’s “distribution policy”. 50% still see themselves as “second class Germans”. However most believed that it was not really possible to influence events through political or social activity.

In this situation the SAV is arguing that a new party is needed to lead the opposition to the capitalist offensive and that such a party would have to be a workers’ party, based within the working class but also be able to appeal to those sections of the middle class who are also under attack. A new workers’ party would have to take all this scepticism into account and respond to it in a very skilful way. A new workers’ party needs to be unique in character, having genuinely democratic structures to allow full participation of members in the discussions and not be run by careerist cliques. It will also have to reject privileges for public representatives, i.e. all its public representatives would have to agree to live on a workers’ wage in order to not lose touch with people they represent. Fundamentally it has to be a campaigning party that takes up vital issues that live amongst the working class and the youth and engage in a struggle to improve their living standards.

A new worker’s party is necessary to try and give all the existing anger, frustration and disgust an organised expression. In our opinion, its programme would have to reject capitalism as a whole and explain that Agenda 2010 and all other attacks on the living standard flow from the very nature of capitalism in crisis. It is a system that strives for profit of a small minority and seeks to solve its problems at the expense of the needs of the majority, the working people, the unemployed, pensioners and the youth. This is why the SAV advocates that such a new party adopts a socialist programme, meaning the taking into public ownership the biggest companies under workers’ control and management and, on this basis, starting to democratically plan the economy.

Economy under pressure

The reason why the SAV holds that a new workers’ party would have to break with capitalism is because this system cannot offer a future. Capitalism in Europe can only offer the working class a future worse than the recent past. Unemployment, social cuts, commercialisation of services, regular economic crises and, as we have seen in the Balkans and Iraq, wars are what we can look forward to.

The German government and the ruling class, under pressure from both its competitors and capitalist institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, are determined to carry on with their neo-liberal agenda. In fact, they think that Germany still is too far behind its rivals when it comes to using deregulation, flexibility, low wages etc to boost profits and lower wages. They argue that Germany’s competitiveness is in danger internationally because of its workers’ high relatively living standards and social standards. This is a road to disaster for workers in Germany and will also be used in other countries to do just the same to other working classes.

Germany’s economy shrank in 2003. It was Germany’s weakest full year performance since the 1993 recession. According to the Financial Times, “Private sector investment has fallen more than 11% per cent between 2000 and 2002. Over the same period, the number of jobs shed by the manufacturing sector, about 400,000, has exceeded the cuts registered in the recession 10 years ago … Economists expect even more jobs to go as German companies struggle to cut costs and boost productivity. Recent figures show employment falling as its fastest pace for 10 years.” (12/01/04)

The economy is also in trouble because of the high value of the euro that makes German exports more expensive.

This is not a natural catastrophe. Economic decline cannot be stopped by giving in to the bosses’ demands, as the current trade union leadership does, but by countering the bosses’ attacks and by organising action, including strikes, which mobilise industrial as well as other workers against the attacks. Since last year SAV members have been campaigning for a one day general strike in all sectors as the next step in fighting the ruling class’s offensive.

Society in turmoil

All these developments provide great opportunities for socialists to win support. There is a general feeling of bitterness and betrayal amongst the working class as a whole. But, as we have seen, there is also a willingness to fight back. People are disgusted by the arrogance of the politicians and bosses. While there is a constant propaganda that “everyone” has to make sacrifices and tighten their belts for the future generations, it becomes more and more obvious who the bosses are really talking to: the working class, the unemployed, pensioners and the youth.

At present, 6 former top directors of Mannesmann are in court accused of breaching their duty when, during that company’s takeover by Vodafone, they agreed to grant 57 million euro in bonuses to themselves and others in return for accepting Vodafone’s bid. One of the accused, Deutsche Bank Chair Ackermann, told the court that Mannesmann chair Esser should have received a bonus of 1 billion euro, instead of the 15 million he actually got, for agreeing to the Vodafone takeover, as he thereby boosted the shareholders’ wealth. Ackermann justified himself saying, “I didn’t enrich myself and I behaved in accordance with economic law”, but what he should have said was capitalist law. This trial is giving just one glimpse of how there is one law for the elite and another for the mass. Scandalously one of the accused is the former IG Metall leader Zwickel who was a “worker director” at Mannesmann but still agreed to these bonuses.

Mannesmann is just another example of how sick this society is. It is rotten to the bone. Socialists need to explain that this is not an exception but a rule and put forward socialist policies in a skilful way. There are great possibilities for socialists to win support but there will be a polarisation in society. The far right will try to benefit from the situation as well and might be able to have success in doing so especially by playing nationalist and racist cards against the euro and immigrants. This underlies the urgency of the workers’ movement presenting its own answer to the bosses’ offensive.

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January 2004