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October 2004 • Vol 4, No. 9 •

Germany: ‘Class struggle on Monday’...and the Rest of the Week as Well

By Hans Gerd Öfinger and Erik Demeester

“Klassenkampf am Montag”—class struggle on Monday—that’s how the magazine Der Spiegel described the Monday demonstrations this summer against the government’s harsh measures of social counter-reform (the Hartz IV packet), which then spread to hundreds of cities across Germany. The packet of measures is known after the name of the chairman of the government commission, Peter Hartz, who also happens to be the head of human resources of the automobile giant Volkswagen.

In July, tens of thousands of ordinary working people started to fill the streets of cities and towns of former East Germany, but then the movement increasingly spread to West German cities as well.

In the beginning it was largely a spontaneous protest action, an unusual but very significant fact in so-called organized and “disciplined” Germany. The wave of protest was put into motion by an outraged individual former railway worker in the city of Magdeburg, who decided to photocopy a hand made poster and posted hundreds of copies of it everywhere he could. It read: “If you feel like me about the new measures against the unemployed come to demonstrate next Monday 19th of July.”

At first a few hundreds gathered. They were probably surprised by their own audacity and the echo they were getting. This made them realize they were not alone with their grievances. In the following days the idea spread like wildfire. Rapidly these demonstrations were dubbed the “Monday demos,” as a tribute to the “Montagdemonstrationen” back in the autumn of 1989 which led to the fall of the Stalinist regime of the former DDR (East Germany).

By late August, more than 100,000 people, in over 200 towns and cities, East and West, North and South, participated in those actions and got the support of local unions, the PDS and former left SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine. At the same time, racist and neo-fascist demagogues of the NPD and DVU also took up the issue of “Hartz IV” in an opportunistic way to score points in their campaigns for the elections in the Eastern states of Sachsen (Saxony) and Brandenburg.

By mid-September this wave of protest had reached a peak of mobilization with demonstrations in 222 localities. A national demo bringing together activists from the different local “Monday demos” has been called for October 2.

Social demolition underway

The “reforms” (in reality counter-reforms) proposed by the Social Democratic government of Gerhard Schröder are an act of demolition of the welfare state built up after the Second World War. They are part of the so-called labor market reforms allegedly intended to boost the weakened German economy and its capacity to compete on the world market.

Amongst the measures recommended are those aimed at long term unemployed people. Unemployment benefits will stop after one year of being on the dole. Then the unemployed will start receiving a social welfare benefit limited to 345 euros per month. But to get this the families of the poor will be means-tested. “Do you possess any jewelry?” “Do you own your house or apartment?” “Do your kids have a savings account and how much money do they have in it?” are some of the Big Brother type questions unemployed people have to respond to right now as they have to fill in a long and extremely complicated questionnaire.

Under the new law, the long term unemployed will have to accept almost any job offered to them and agree to move across the country if necessary or risk losing some or all of their financial aid from the state. In addition, many long-term unemployed will be blackmailed into so-called “One Euro Jobs” where they are supposed to do socially useful work but in reality will be abused as strike-breakers with no union rights to undermine the unions and their contracts.

These drastic changes affect about 1.6 million Germans who have been unemployed for more than one year, as well as a further one million people who are currently receiving welfare payments because they cannot work. Already, the fear of being affected by these changes is having a dramatic effect. In many cases unemployed people are prepared to accept even starvation wages just to get a miserable job by December 31.

Many people think that these measures will make the life of unemployed people hell. It is no accident therefore that most Germans sympathize with the demonstrations. A survey by the polling institute Forsa shows that 71 percent of those polled agreed with the protests, while 25 percent did not. Opinions differed in the East and West, with more East Germans expressing criticism of the reforms.

If the center of gravity of the protest lies in the East of Germany this is no accident. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, unemployment in the former East Germany is twice, and sometimes three times, the level of the Western regions. This is the result of the destruction of whole parts of industry in the former DDR thanks to the restoration of capitalism. Entire regions in the East are being deserted as the younger and better educated people run away to find jobs in the West, leaving behind the older generation and more demoralized elements. The wages are also on average still lower in the regions of the former DDR than in the Western part. The general misery, combined with the feeling of betrayal and unkept promises fuels the protests in cities like Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin and others.

The bourgeois media, helped by the “wise” advice of university professors of all kinds, put the blame on the former East German workers. They make use of a dubious social psychology. The former head of the national commission set up to investigate the former East German secret police (Stasi), Joachim Gauck, claims that “Easterners had not worked out what it meant to be citizens instead of subjects.”

He goes on to say, “the years under socialism have made it difficult for people to accept not only the benefits that come from living in a free, democratic society, but its responsibilities as well. In the DDR, the state took care of one’s needs, from the state-run day care for children to an education, job, apartment and even vacations provided by the government.”

As a result of this kind of thinking, Gerd Pickel, a professor of comparative sociology at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt/Oder, concludes that Easterners tend to blame the policies of the government for their joblessness. Another self-appointed expert goes further. “People have to understand that they have to take action themselves now. What we find unfortunate is the widespread attitude that people have a right to work. No, they have a right to apply for work and fight for it.”

With this perverse propaganda, the media, the bosses and the government wish to divide the workers from the East and the West. It is nevertheless correct to say that the recent protests have become a focus for all the resentment after reunification and for the continued feeling among East Germans that they have a second-class status. But at the same time they act as a lightning rod for all merging tensions in German society as a whole.

The ripples of social defiance are reaching all corners of German society. A pervasive sense of decline is gripping the whole of the economy. Three years of near zero growth, a shaky recovery, 4.6 million unemployed and a soaring budget deficit are confirm this. Germany is becoming the sick man of Europe. Hence the unprecedented attack of the bosses in industry against the workers, their wages and working conditions. German core industries are growingly feeling the brunt of renewed international competition.

Counterrevolution in the workplace

It started with the electronics giant Siemens who forced its workers in some areas to go back to a 40-hour week. If the workers had refused Siemens was threatening to move its production to East European countries where wages are lower. This attack comes exactly 20 years after the strong IG Metal union secured the first decisive steps towards the introduction of the 35-hour week after a 6-week strike.

Siemens is not an exception. Around 100 companies across a range of industries have lodged demands with their unions for a severe lengthening of the working week, some without any additional pay. In exchange the bosses say they will not make any lay-offs. Others do not limit themselves to demanding the reintroduction of the 40-hour week, but are demanding 50 hours! One food processing factory has even introduced a 60-hour week over 6 days.

The automobile company DaimlerChrysler also went on the offensive in the early summer demanding a 500 million euro reduction in costs. They chose the Sindelfingen plant as a testing ground, with its powerful and well-organized workforce of over 40,000. Immediately 60,000 car workers in all German DaimlerChrysler plants went on strike rejecting this outrageous attack. Unfortunately the union leaders signed a deal which included the very same reduction of costs that the workers had fought against. In exchange they got the promise of job security up to the year 2012.

The biggest carmaker of Germany, the emblematic Volkswagen (VW), is also tightening the screws. The VW management are demanding a wage freeze for the next two years and a 30 percent reduction in costs. If this is not possible 30,000 workers will be sacked. The unions on the other hand are demanding job security up to 2010 and a wage increase of 4 percent. The powerful IG-Metal union is refusing the austerity package presented by the management. The union leaders are still desperately trying to hold on to the old system of co-management, or “Mitbestimmung,” while the bosses abandoned this long ago and are on a course of open conflict with the labor movement and have been engaged in an unprecedented tug of war. Most trade unionists are in fact baffled by the bosses’ offensive.

The state-owned railways, Deutsche Bahn AG, have become one of the latest companies to unveil plans to lengthen the working week, from its present level of 38.5 hours to 40 hours, without any increase in wages. In return the company promises not to make further redundancies.

In most cases wage differentials with east and central European countries are used to justify this attack. Wages in Hungary, Poland and other East European countries are indeed considerably lower than in Germany. However, the real meaning of this major onslaught of the German bosses against the working week and the old social reforms as a whole is that capitalism can no longer tolerate the welfare state, nor even German capitalism. If even one of the richest and most powerful economies in the world is increasingly becoming incompatible with basic welfare, we can imagine what can and will happen in other weaker countries.

The knock-on effects of this crisis are seeping into ever corner of German society. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) of chancellor Gerhard Schröder, is facing its biggest crisis since the 1930s. Since 1998 the party has lost 200,000 members and is now falling close to the level of 600,000.

The uneasiness and dissatisfaction of the SPD rank and file is shown by one recent development. A handful of local trade union leaders in Bavaria got an unexpected echo in the ranks of the party when they published a critical appeal for more social justice. This grouping is threatening to set up a new political formation to stand in the 2006 elections. Their stated aim is to attract all those voters the SPD has lost over the last few years. The SPD right-wing apparatus reacted immediately and decided on expulsions. Thus some of these local union leaders immediately became martyrs in the eyes of many of the rank and file.

They are seen to be fighting the right-wing leadership of the party, but so far their new political formation, the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice), has not developed a consistent socialist alternative to the counter-reformist policies of Gerard Schröder. Its program is at the stage of being a dream of going back to the glorious days of the 1970s and of the policies of the then-chancellor and party leader Willy Brandt. This reflects the desire of the German workers to defend what they have fought for over decades, but its fundamental weakness is that it does not explain why those reforms are being taken away today, and, more importantly it does not explain how such reforms can be defended.

In the present crisis of German capitalism any struggle for genuine reforms, even to defend the old ones, inevitably comes into conflict with the very essence of capitalism. Therefore it is necessary to go beyond the program of the 1970s and forward to the struggle for the removal of German capitalism, for a socialist Germany.

In spite of its weaknesses—should the Schröder government survive until the end of the present term in 2006—it is not excluded that the WASG may develop some basis of support. The problem of the WASG is that it limits itself to being merely a more left-wing version of the present SPD. What the German working class is in need of is definitely not yet another, third reformist party apart from the SPD and the PDS. However the anger of many German workers at the behavior and policies of the present SPD leadership is shown by recent polls. These indicate that as a result of the desperation and the lack of a real socialist alternative a popular left formation of some kind could gain up to 15 percent of the vote if they decide to stand in elections.

SPD trounced in string of regional elections

A good barometer of the growing discontent with the policy of dismantling of the welfare state, are the election results of the SPD in recent regional elections. On September 5, the Social Democrats suffered their worst defeat in over 40 years in the Saarland state elections. Even a superficial analysis leaves no room for doubt: the working class base of the SPD, its natural constituency, vented its anger over the welfare “reforms.” Amid a low turnout the SPD score was slashed by one third from 44.4 percent in the last state elections to a dismal 30.8 percent. This was the worst result since 1960. The right wing CDU won and has returned to power with 47.5 percent of the vote.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that there has been a massive swing to the right. The CDU only scored two percentage points better than what they did five years ago. If we take into account that there was a low turnout of 55.6 percent, down from nearly 69 percent in 1999, we can see that in absolute terms the CDU did not win more votes. What this result really shows is a massive abstention on the part of SPD voters, who rather than vote for the CDU preferred to stay at home. It is a left vote that can find no expression in any of the existing parties.

In the Eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony both the SPD and CDU lost in relative and absolute terms. In the council elections in North Rhine Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany and also a traditional SPD bastion, a defeat for the SPD is expected on September 26. In Brandenburg and Saxony, a section of workers and especially unemployed have turned towards the former communist PDS which scored up to 26 percent. If this trend is confirmed the future of the SPD looks ominous.

Worrying is the result of the neo-fascist NPD that succeeded for the first time since 1968 in passing the threshold of 5 percent needed to be represented in the regional parliament. The NPD scored over 9 percent in Saxony on an openly racist program (Grenzen Dicht!—Close the Borders!) combined with social demagogy (against the Hartz laws). They attracted many young, unemployed and male voters. This result is a clear warning to the working class and its organizations. The SPD are not seen as defending the workers and the poor. The vote of the NPD is the direct result of the counter-reformist policies of the SPD and its leadership. If the remaining SPD left-wing, the PDS and the unions do not give a credible alternative of fundamental change some layers can be tempted by racist demagogy.

We have seen this phenomenon of the rise of the far right in other European countries. It is a reflection of social malaise, combined with a lack of a fighting leadership of the organized labor movement. When the leaders of the so-called Left are seen to be applying the same policies as the Conservative parties, room is left open on the far right to whip up chauvinism, racism and bigotry.

There is no automatic process that says the neo-Nazis must advance in Germany. A survey released in August shows that the idea of socialism is still popular. More than three quarters of the people interviewed in the East have a positive view about socialism, but (correctly) think it has been put into practice badly. Even in the West around 50 per cent support this idea. Thus the potential for real socialist ideas is there in Germany today. Therefore, as in other countries, this rise of the far right is to be seen as a temporary phenomenon, not as some major turn to the right. Once the powerful German labor movement starts to flex its muscles this will become clear to all.

One thing must be clear to everyone: Germany is changing rapidly. The model of social harmony and so-called human capitalism has been shattered by the crisis of world capitalism. The present and the future is one of strong social polarization and class struggle where capitalism will show its real ugly face. And the German workers will mobilize against it, as they have done so many times in the past.

In Defense of Marxism, September 24, 2004





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