Germany: Anger mounts against cuts

Protests continue

Germany continues to be in angry turmoil as the ruling class’s offensive continues in an attempt to boost its profits and competitiveness. Since the end of July, tens of thousands, mainly in east Germany, have demonstrated every Monday against government cuts. Last Saturday, September 11th, 10,000 blind people protested in Hanover against the Lower Saxony state government’s abolition of extra benefits for the blind.

Company after company is following the example already set by the social democrat led federal government and trying to force workers to work longer hours for no extra pay. Volkswagen has threatened 30,000 job losses (17% of their German workforce), if a two year wage freeze is not accepted. Opel, part of General Motors, are talking of increasing the working week with no extra pay and a wage freeze until 2009. The count-down is continuing towards 1 January 2005, when the so-called "Hartz IV" changes will mean huge cuts in unemployment pay for those out of work for over a year and, for 500,000 unemployed a complete end to any state benefits. The government is absolutely clear that Hartz IV is designed both to pay for tax cuts and to force workers to accept lower wages. At the same time, direct and indirect cuts are being implemented at every level of society, and the railways have just announced above inflation fare increases.

No stability

"German stability" has been undermined as the former west Germans lose the living standards they once had and the former east Germans realise that the promises the German rulers gave them at the time of unification in 1990 will not be realised. The result is a profound change in mood, anger and bitterness and increasing opposition. In eastern Germany this anger is much more pronounced as the unemployed face massive cuts in benefit in an area where there are simply no jobs; at the last official count there were 48,284 vacancies for the 1,582,181 unemployed in the east.

The main political parties are losing out. At present the main blows are being felt by the chancellor Schröder’s social democrats (SPD) heading the federal government. The SPD membership continues to rapidly fall and in elections voters are leaving them in droves. But there is no enthusiasm for the main opposition Christian Democrats (CDU). 5 September saw the CDU-led state government in the small western Saarland state re-elected, but with a 17.9% drop in its own vote and a voter turnout lower than in last June’s Euro-election.

In Saarland, smaller parties saw their votes rise. This included those parties opposing the cuts like the Family Party (5,623 to 13,103); Grey (pensioners’) Party (6,285); the PDS (4,490 to 10,237) and, worryingly, the neo-fascist NPD (17,584, 4%). The very limited increase for the PDS showed the limitations of this party, especially in western Germany, given its failure to honestly assess its Stalinist past and its inability to seriously fight the cuts.

But there are growing opportunities for a socialist opposition. Opinion polls indicate that, if the new left wing grouping, WASG (Election Alternative for Social Justice), formation of trade unionists and others go ahead with their plans to launch a new left party, it could immediately win 11%. While last month an official report showed that currently 51% of west Germans think that socialism is a "good idea". But, at this moment, it is not certain whether the WASG leaders are willing to immediately start standing in elections and, furthermore, they want the WASG to be a "welfare state" rather than a socialist party.

The absence of a powerful socialist opposition movement is creating space for the neo-fascists to exploit the crisis with their propaganda, combining social demands with nationalism. It is likely that in the September 19 regional elections in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony the fascist vote will increase – something that may temper the predicted fall in SPD support.

Monday Demonstrations

But elections only give a snapshot of opinion. A key change in Germany has been the development of the "Monday demonstrations". Since the end of July these demos rapidly developed and in eastern Germany attracted tens of thousands. Their significance is that for the first time since 1989 east Germans have spontaneously protested. These protests are potentially the basis for a new socialist movement. Given their experience, east Germans clearly link their average 19% unemployment, and the current cuts, with the re-instruction of capitalism after 1990. This is why the latest polls show that 79% of east Germans think that "socialism is a good idea" at the same time as they, in effect, reject the old Stalinist East German regime when they also agree that it was "badly put into practice".

German capitalism is no longer offering, as the former chancellor Kohl once did, a "blooming landscape" to the east. Newly elected German President Köhler has now bluntly said that "one must resign oneself …to different living conditions within Germany", in other words east Germans cannot expect to catch up with the West. Clearly the perspective of German capitalism is that east will not develop at the same time as West German living standards have to fall.

Bosses are exploiting the fear of unemployment to drive down living standards. In some cases, west German workers, not seeing an alternative, reluctantly accept this. Other workers, like those at Mercedes, reacted furiously to attacks during July. But the union leaders are not prepared to seriously struggle because they realise that capitalism is in crisis and, at the end of the day, they are not willing to challenge the system. So, at Mercedes, the union leaders helped secure a late night deal that meant thousands of workers working more hours for no pay – a deal that they did not put to a vote.

Likewise, the DGB (trade union federation) leaders dropped their opposition to Hartz IV once it was passed by parliament because they said they were "democrats". They ignored the fact that the 2002 election manifesto, upon which the SPD was elected, specifically ruled out the sort of changes that Hartz IV makes. Now the DGB has declared that they will not support the national anti-Hartz demo called in Berlin for 2 October . Even more "radical" leaders, like Bsirske of ver.di, the largest single union, say that, while he supports local demos, they should not now oppose Hartz IV but call for it to be "improved". Other union leaders give different excuses for inaction – in North Rhine Westphalia ver.di leaders are saying that there is not enough time to mobilise for the Berlin demo.

The Monday demos, industrial protests, and the elections, all indicate the growing opposition. But unless this is pulled together in a co-ordinated way to build a movement that can resist the cuts there is a danger that there will be massive falls in living standards. The fluctuations in attendance at the Monday protests show that it is not possible simply to maintain weekly demos without a perspective of how a wider movement can be built.

For a one day general strike

Socialist Alternative (SAV – the German section of the CWI) has argued for the building of democratic campaigning structures, involving workers, the unemployed and others. This has been linked to a combined strategy of building support from below for a one-day general strike, while simultaneously demanding that the trade unions call such a protest as the next step. A one day general strike, the first in the whole of Germany since the 1920s, would shake the whole of German society and move the struggle onto a much higher level.

In Rostock, in eastern Germany, the SAV helped build one of the most radical protest movements. The local SAV councillor has been the main speaker at the Monday rallies, despite the opposition of the local DGB and PDS leaders, and Rostock was the first, and so far only, area to see strike action linked to the Monday protests.

If the momentum of this movement can be maintained the 2 October protest could be a massive show of opposition to the ruling class’s attacks. But if the attacks are going to be defeated then an ongoing offensive strategy needs to be adopted. A national mobilisation of the German workers’ movement could not only stop Hartz IV but also open the way to building a strong socialist opposition to capitalism.


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September 2004