Germany: Half a million march against government’s social cuts

Huge anger against Schröder’s ‘Agenda 2010’ onslaught

On Saturday 3 April, more than 500,000 people took part in three regional demonstrations, organised by the German trade union federation (DGB), to protest against government social cuts. 300,000 marched in Berlin, 120,000 in Stuttgart and another 100,000 in Cologne.

3 April marked the biggest one day protest against the Social Democratic (SPD) led government since it came into office in 1998. Workers, the unemployed, civil servants, students, immigrants, pensioners, young people, all got together to bring one message: “Enough is enough!”

It is not surprising that the call for the demonstrations got such a good response. The working class and the unemployed understand that the break-up of the welfare state – carried out under the banner of ‘Agenda 2010’ – is at stake. The obligatory fee that has to be paid now for a seeing a doctor, the increased payments for medicine, cuts in pensions, cuts in unemployment benefit, mass lay-offs, increase in the working week, cuts in wages….these are just a few examples to indicate that the bosses and the government want to turn the clock backwards to the conditions of early capitalism.

That is why many protestors on Saturday had drawn the conclusion that “Schröder has got to go!”

However, at the starting rally of the demonstration in Berlin, it became obvious that this new movement against social cuts is faced with a number of problems. The first speaker was the IGM’s (metal and engineering union) Berlin district organiser. He managed to not once mention Chancellor Schröder and the SPD’s responsibility for the social onslaught. His speech was nothing more than a general talk about “progress” and “social justice”.

This indicates that the trade union bureaucracy obviously finds it difficult to explain why they have only started to organise protests against Agenda 2010 one year after it was announced. In fact, the union tops were forced to take action because of the growing anger that developed from below. This began with the 100,000-strong demonstration on November 1 2003, which was organised from below, and the growing discontent and pressure in the work places and amongst the rank and file of the unions.

Without that pressure, the trade union leaders would still be meeting with with their SPD party colleagues to discuss how to best implement Agenda 2010.

As little as 6 weeks ago, the DGB spoke about bringing out just 50,000 people on the protests. The figure became 500,000 because the population is fed up with the government’s attack.

However, there were also left and militant trade unionists that were more radical and who bluntly criticised the SPD’s policies. Katharina Seewald, Chair of the DGB in North Hessen, used the example of the 2003 9 December demonstration in the city of Kassel, when 7,000 workers and young people walked out in a cross-sector strike. Even though Seewald did not explicitly say so, her remarks alluded to the fact that this action in Kassel was a political strike. Seewald called on everyone to follow the example of Kassel and expressed the hope that June would see similar sized protests to those of 3 April – but next time, she said, they should be organised on a week day.

In contrast to all other trade union speakers, Seewald also mentioned the reasons for the social onslaught, namely the capitalist system.

The demonstration in Berlin was massive and militant. There were many home made banners and placards, as well as many red union flags. Again and again, there were workers from different companies marching together.

One popular placard slogan called for the needs of people to be addressed “not big business”. Another said: “A request for the CDU [the conservative Christian Democratic Union]: Make Schröder an honorary member”

What next?

The German affiliate to the Committee for a Workers’ International, SAV (Sozialistische Alternative), put forward two main slogans for the demos: “For a one day general strike” and “Build a new party for workers, unemployed, youth and pensioners.”

The paper of SAV, ‘Solidarity’, which also featured the two slogans on its front page, was well received. In Berlin, alone, we sold 400 copies of Solidarity. After reading the headlines, many people stopped to buy a copy.

The demand for a general strike was also taken up by non-SAV members. One protester carried a self made placard that read: “A general strike is the only means which will help the people in this country to [get] their rights. It is a legitimate means, the last means of the population to bring the ruling elites to a halt.”

When we asked the protester whether he thought the trade union leadership would call for a general strike, he answered: “I can’t tell. There would be many, many people who would be ready to follow such a call. If they don’t call for it, I think they will be wiped away by the rank and file.”

Activists from the ‘Network for a Democratic and Fighting ver.di’ [ver.di – the united services union] also demanded strike action. They received an excellent response. The still small Berlin branch of the Network collected names and addresses of 90 ver.di members who are interested in getting involved in the campaign.

The question of a new workers’ party [see previous articles on the SAV web site] was discussed by participants on the Berlin demonstration and the idea was widely approved. People often approached SAV stalls because they thought we were the initiators of the appeal for a new alternative to the SPD that has gained widespread media coverage over the past few weeks.

It became obvious to SAV members during the day of protests, that a bold campaign by the trade unions and leading trade unionists in favour of a new party would get a great response. It would mark a big step forward for the German working class and would finally offer an answer to the question which comes up repeatedly: “What is the alternative to Schröder?”

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April 2004