Germans on the march against reforms

BERLIN — People are suddenly on the march again. The government’s “reform package” known as “Agenda 2010,” but especially its cruelest item, the jobless reform law, has shaken German working people and especially the jobless out of apathetic attitudes of “Wait and see!” or “You can’t change things anyway.” Tens of thousands have been marching.

The government coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens first passed a law “reforming” medical care, introducing fees for medical and dental visits, increasing costs for dentures and other medical aids and sharply increasing prices for medicines. That caused plenty of grumbling.

Pensions were cut, while taxes on pensions increased. Factories, which won the 35-hour workweek after a big strike 20 years ago, had to return to 40 hours under threat of moving to worse paid areas to the east. Some went up to a 42-hour week. Christmas and vacation pay were cut. Then came the decision to push the “longtime jobless” from the present compensation level (about 54 percent of former pay) down to welfare payment levels, about 350-375 euro a month (less in eastern than in western Germany). With almost 20 percent jobless in eastern Germany (well over that in some areas), with whole towns and regions stripped of the former GDR industrial network, this would mean cutting perhaps 1.5 million people to subsistence level on Jan. 1.

But even the welfare payments will be conditioned on financial status. What made the pot boil over, especially in the east, was the 16-page questionnaire now being mailed, which demands an incredible amount of personal financial information.

Anything above the permissible level would be subtracted from the measly payments. Countless people wondered whether their little flower and vegetable gardens would have to be sacrificed, whether they would be forced to move to more cramped flats and whether the savings for their kids’ college were endangered. Finally, these many fears turned to anger. Starting earlier this month in Magdeburg and Dessau, the demonstrations spread and grew, involving tens of thousands around eastern Germany and some in western Germany as well.

Worrying government leaders most is that on Sept. 19 state elections are scheduled in Saxony and Brandenburg, the most important East German states. In Saxony the Christian Democrats rule alone — but in the opposition, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) already outnumbers the Social Democrats. In Brandenburg, where the Social Democrats now rule with the Christian Democrats, both stand to lose strength. After the PDS lost severely on the national level in 2002, keeping only two Bundestag delegates, established politicians and the media consigned it to the garbage heap. Now it is a real presence, with about 25 percent of east German votes and about 7 percent in all Germany, enough to get forty or more delegates into the Bundestag in 2006.

There was another worry. Many Social Democrats, among union members who were always the backbone of the party, are disgusted with the Schroeder cabinet. Some are circulating a petition to remove Schroeder, others are discussing the creation of a new party left of the SPD but based mostly in west Germany.

The PDS has been active in some of the marches and demonstrations. This makes problems in Berlin and the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where it shares in coalition governments with the Social Democrats. But the current increase in action seems to be getting the PDS up on its feet as a fighting party.

Lurking in the shadows is the real menace. The neo-nazis, hitherto split in different parties, are beginning to consolidate their policies of “Germany for the Germans.” They also oppose the government “reforms” and are growing in strength, tolerated or encouraged by many in power and ready to feast on the misery possibly around the corner in the truly downtrodden eastern provinces.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org