Germany: Hot autumn starts early

“Hot autumn” for German government starts early as tens of thousands take to the streets in yet another wave of protest against impoverishment programme Agenda 2010

Millions of unemployed across Germany have received letters in the post in the past few weeks confronting them with the bitter reality they will be facing if Hartz IV, the restructuring of unemployment benefits as part of Agenda 2010, is going to be implemented in January 2005. With these letters there is a 16 page questionnaire in which people are asked about what car they drive, how much money is in their bank account, their partner’s income, whether their children under 14 have more than € 750 in savings, whether they own a house or flat etc. Vital information the government needs to decide whether you will be entitled to receive any benefits at all.

“The IVth Hartz (heart)-attack is lethal”…

read one of the placards on a demonstration. It is “a new form of slavery” according to a trade unionist and indeed, Hartz IV opens the door to the re-occurrence of poverty on a mass scale in Germany, one of the richest countries and biggest economies in the world. According to IG Metall (Germany’s large metal and engineering union) about half a million unemployed will be left without any state support from 1 January 2005 if the law is implemented as proposed.

But also those who will still be entitled to receive benefits will be faced with a grim future. Millions of people across the country will see their unemployment benefits dropping to € 331 a month in East Germany and € 345 in the West after having received full benefits for the first year of unemployment. This leaves people to spend around € 10 a day on food, clothes, medical care, phone bills etc.

In addition to the drop in benefits, people can be forced to accept any kind of job that is offered to them, regardless of what part of the country the job is. Jobs that pay €2- €3 an hour are regarded as acceptable. This is in fact one of the main objectives of this counter-reform that aims, as well as cutting state spending, to cut living standards and create a large low wage sector in the German economy.

East Germans hit hardest

The anger amongst East Germans is especially bitter because jobs have systematically been destroyed in the 14 years following capitalist reunification, leading to a situation where average unemployment stands at 20% (10% nationally).

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern alone, one of the poorest Eastern regional states, 50% of the unemployed have been unemployed for more than a year and thus are affected by the new law. A lot of regions in the East are threatened with losing almost an entire generation of young people who simply move away because they cannot find a job. In every family or extended family you will find at least one person who is unemployed. In other families, unemployment is passed on from one generation to the other.

It is therefore not surprising that even though protests have taken place in the West as well and are likely to increase in size, the protests at this stage are a predominantly East German occurrence. Tens of thousands of unemployed, workers, pensioners but also young people have taken to the streets in many East German cities.

Following the traditions of the 1989 protest movement against the lack of democratic rights in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), weekly Monday demonstrations are meant to take place “as long as it takes to stop Hartz IV and until there are jobs” says the organiser of the protests in Magdeburg. Demonstrations and protests have gone into their third week now and with 90,000 on the demonstrations, the turn out has doubled within a week.

Members of Socialist Alternative (SAV), the German affiliate to the CWI, who have successfully campaigned in the demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden and who were crucial in initiating the first, 5,000 strong, demonstration in Rostock, report that the mood amongst the participants is very explosive. Some people have even expressed their bitterness by saying that they wouldn’t mind setting the government labour offices on fire.

Arrogance of the political establishment goes hand in hand with…

Bitterness goes beyond the immediate attack; there is a general feeling of betrayal and disgust with the political establishment, especially the Social Democrat government, which is completely out of touch with the reality of life for most working people.

According to the government, people are misled by the media and haven’t fully understood the advantages of the government plans. In order to outline and explain their “marvellous” proposals, they have now launched a € 1,000,000 propaganda campaign which aims to calm down people and hopes to limit the protests.

Some bourgeois journalists and commentators have been extremely vicious in trying to discredit as well as to drive a wedge between people participating in the movement: “What world do we live in, in which people who own a house, a garden, a flat, an expensive insurance etc. want to exploit the solidarity of those who very often do not earn anything? (…) The wrath, it seems, would soon disappear, if the protestors were guaranteed that their gardens and the bank accounts on which they can park their little wealth were untouchable and they would still be entitled to receive tax financed benefits.” This is an arrogant insult to all working people, particularly skilled workers in Germany, who have worked all their lives, have paid taxes and contributed to the unemployment and pension fund and in the course of years have managed to maybe buy a house or a flat. They see all the fruits of their life’s hard work being threatened to disappear into nothing since it is highly unlikely to find a new, let alone a decent job, at the age of 50.

The movement needs to answer those slanders by pointing at the true profiteers of the system. There is a widening gap between rich and poor in German society. The wealth of the poorest quarter of West German households has more than halved in the 10 years between 1993 and 2003. However the wealth of the richest quarter has increased by 25% in the same period.

While the unemployed collectively lose €10 billion a year through the new law, each individual millionaire will gain € 108,000 a year through tax reforms.

Arrogantly unimpressed with the protests, the employment minister stated he did not feel that he was coming under any pressure from the streets. In order to make the government come under pressure, protests need to be stepped up and a strategy adopted to defeat these attacks.

Initiated by SAV’s newly elected councillor Christine Lehnert, the first Rostock demonstration – under enormous applause – adopted a declaration that calls upon the national trade union federation to organise a one day, all out national strike as a first step to use the power of the whole of the working class in fighting the pro big business policies of the government.

… the unwillingness of the trade union bureaucracy to organise real resistance !

The Rostock-declaration can serve as a model for other demonstrations and could help to increase the pressure on the trade union bureaucracy to first of all fully reject the government’s plans instead of compromising and arguing for smaller changes and second of all to strengthen the protests by calling for strike actions against Hartz IV.

This is vital because Hartz IV does not only affect the unemployed, it also acts as a lever to drive down wages in general. If Hartz IV can force people to work for €2 -€ 3 an hour, it is more than obvious that employers will use this to blackmail workers to accept lower wages. Already after the union leaders agreed to an increase in the working week without wage increase at Siemens and Daimler, there are currently 190 metal and engineering companies in Bavaria alone that are negotiating deals along the same lines.

Which way forward?

While the trade unions are present at the demonstrations, they unfortunately aren’t providing any strategy for the next steps the movement inevitably needs to take in order to be successful. Organising regional days of strike actions and further mass demonstrations as a means to prepare for a general strike are urgent steps the movement needs to discuss in the coming days.

At present, the movement still hasn’t reached its momentum but it will probably grow and also spread into the Western part of the country. But given the forces that are involved in organising the protests, it is not sure how long this will go on for. In the main so far, it is individuals as well as the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism, the former East German state party), and local trade union federations which are involved in organising the protests.

For a long time the PDS had almost been invisible in the protest movements but now, as a result of their active participation, recent opinion polls have seen the PDS going up from 4% to 8% nationally, and heading the polls with 29% in the East German regional state Brandenburg that has elections on September 19. However, their overall role remains dubious. They are part of the regional governments in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and have actively taking part in implementing cuts. There can be no doubt that the PDS leadership has accepted the rules of capitalism and will not be the driving force in a serious struggle to stop Hartz IV, indeed some of their leaders simply talk of changing it.

Fascist organisations and parties, which have scored well in the June European elections, are trying to benefit from the anger and disgust with the political establishment. They have tried to intervene in the demonstrations with slogans such as “For national socialism” and “against the liberal capitalist fat cats”. Their objective is clear: “We want to pull parts of the protest voters over to the nationalist camp”, says the NPD’s (National Democratic Party) chair person. They have been kicked out of most demonstrations but nevertheless, the danger is posed that they manage to attract people who see them as a radical alternative to the political establishment.

The attitude of the trade union leaders is a disgrace in that respect. Instead of increasing their mobilisation and instead of providing stewards that will guarantee that the fascists will be kept out of the demonstrations, the chair of the DGB (trade union federation) expressed his worries about the involvement of the fascists: “Trade union activists need to be careful what to take part in and what not”

The need for an all German left party

Oskar Lafontaine, the former finance minister of the Schröder government and former chair of the SPD who has got a left profile, has recently threatened to join the newly formed Electoral Alternative for Work and Social justice (see previous articles on Germany) if Schröder does not step down.

Despite the fact that this new formation has not even decided on whether or not to stand in the national elections which are scheduled for 2006, Lafontaine’s announcement has immediately resulted in research institutes suggesting that the new party could score between 15-20% in the elections. This reflects the great potential for the new party which – only a few weeks after it’s been set up – has already got 3,000 members and 70 local branches but also the hopes and illusions of the working class in Lafontaine.

Unfortunately, and this is mainly due to the existence of the PDS, Electoral Alternative is up until now almost non-existent in the East. A serious intervention into the mass movement in the East as well as being to the fore in building the movement in the West would open the possibility for a change in the situation. Such an intervention would require active mobilisation but also a clear programme and strategy of how to fight Hartz IV. While activists of Electoral Alternative play an important role in initiating protests on the ground, it remains unclear however, if the leadership is willing to play that role.

While Lafontaine’s involvement – even though it is by no means certain – will boost the new party in the short term it also sharply raises the need for the new party to be able to democratically and openly discuss its programme and structure.

The main reason for Lafontaine’s left profile today is the shift to the right of the SPD. In the late 1980’s he was amongst the first SPD leaders to promote a shorter working week with loss of pay at a time when the trade unions were fighting for a 35 hour week with no loss in pay. Today, he stands for a Keynesian, state interventionist policy and for a greater taxation of the rich, in other words trying to work within the capitalist system. But when he tried to implement those policies as Schröder’s first finance minister, the capitalists threatened to move capital from Germany and to stop investment. This shows that even small reforms are today unacceptable in the eyes of the super rich and that the question of who controls wealth in society is not a secondary or abstract question, but unavoidable when trying to improve the living conditions of the working class.

That is why SAV is arguing for the new party to adopt a socialist programme, a programme that stands for public control and ownership of the big companies and banks.

While a mass movement that adopts serious means of struggle, such as strike actions and general strikes, can win concessions or delay the implementation of Hartz IV and Agenda 2010, it is only on the basis of a socialist programme which involves the overthrow of capitalism that the ruling class’s offensive can be defeated.

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