On the New Wave of Social Protest in Germany

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On the new wave of social protest in Germany

Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialists explains why thousands of the Bundesrepublik’s citizens are taking to the streets.

This summer Germany is struck by a new wave of social protest. Beginning on 3 August, 2004, and occurring every week since, so-called "Monday rallies" with tens of thousands of pariticipants are taking place in 150-200 German cities, great and small. The term refers to the famous demonstrations of the year 1989, when mass rallies forced the then GDR government to listen to the people’s demands for more freedom and democratic rights. To the indignation of the present Social Democratic-Green government the marchers of today want the government to listen to their protests against a package of measures to dismantle the welfare state, unprecedented in the whole history of the Federal Republic of Germany. For 2 October a huge nation-wide demonstration in Berlin is planned.

In the focus of the protests is the so-called Hartz IV law, adopted in July, 2004 by all parliamentary parties except the PDS and due to come into force on 1 January, 2005. This law is the fourth part of a whole package, worked out by a tripartite commission of capital, labour and academic representatives, chaired by Volkswagen personnel manager Peter Hartz. The commission was called by the government to reform the German labour market and to fight unemployment, which remains at a nation-wide high of 8-10 %. Hartz IV involves a series of harsh measures designed to pressure the long-term unemployed into making more effort to find a new job. In fact, they amount to brutal worsening of their overall material conditions. The main changes are:

  • The time an unemployed person can receive an earnings-related benefit (Arbeitslosengeld) (around two thirds of the last net earnings on the basis of individually paid insurance contributions) is reduced to a standard 12 months for everybody. Until now the maximum was 32 months for people over 55 years of age and the corresponding working years and insurance contributions.
  • After 12 months everybody falls into the category of long-term unemployed entitled to a new standard pay called "unemployment benefit II" (Arbeitslosengeld II – ALG II), which is on the level of the present social welfare pay, the subsistence minimum. The amount is 345 Euro for the West German lander (federal states) and 331 for the lander in the East of Germany, plus modest extras for housing and heating. Hitherto, after entitlement to Arbeitslosengeld run out, people received an unemployment benefit of around 50 % called Arbeitslosenhilfe, dependent, partly, on the income of the spouse and of proven efforts actively to look for a new job. Now, in fact, Arbeitslosenhilfe will be cancelled and the former unemployment benefit merged with the social welfare pay on the latter’s low level.

Receiving ALG II is only possible on the following conditions:

  • Firstly, the income of the spouse or – with single people – every kind of property (flat, car, land, savings, life insurance, pensions insurance…) is fully taken into account. Only after having sold and consumed most of this, has one a right to ALG II. Trade unions statistics say that more than 300,000 people in East Germany will get nothing under this condition.

    Secondly, any job offered by the state or private job agencies must be accepted, irrespective of pay below standard levels, qualification or location, even if a long distance from the worker’s residence. Otherwise ALG II will be cut or stopped altogether. Until now the unemployed person was entitled to a new job paid on standard level and corresponding in general to his/her qualification. Municipalities, welfare organisations and others are requested to create work opportunities on a pay of 1-2 Euros per hour as an additional income for ALG II recipients. These must also be accepted by everybody.

Trade unions, welfare agencies, large parts of public opinion and the PDS are unanimous in their judgement that Hartz IV will not contribute to the solution of the unemployment problem but worsen the social situation by a degree unseen in German post-war history:

  • Hartz IV is an austerity program entitled to reduce social expenditure at the expense of the unemployed. It will not create any jobs with living wages, but further fuel wage dumping and destroy normal jobs.
  • Hartz IV is annihilating people’s qualifications. By forcing everybody to accept any job, qualified people are pushed into low level work from where there is no return.
  • Hartz IV is reducing mass purchasing power and domestic consumer demand, which is detrimental to growth rates of the German economy fuelled presently by exports alone.
  • Hartz IV will widen the gap between rich and poor in Germany at breathtaking speed. According to trade union prognoses the number of poor people could rise in 2005 from 2.8 to 4.5 million. The number of children forced to live on social welfare will increase from now 1.5 million to 2.0 million. People will more quickly arrive at the brink of poverty because of cutting the length of times during which people are entitled to receive earnings-related unemployment benefit.
  • Hartz IV is a gross violation of human dignity. People are punished for losing their jobs through no fault of their own, by the failure of the welfare state. They are arbitrarily pressured under inhumane social conditions in a country where the number of millionaires is one of the highest in the world and is constantly rising.

The "Monday rallies" have started – as in 1989 – in East Germany and have there reached here broadest scale. While public support for the marchers’ demands is 67 % in Germany, it is 85 % in the East. The reasons are:

  • The number of people affected by Hartz IV is much higher in the East with the unemployment rate the double of the West’s (18 – 19 %) and the people depending now on Arbeitslosenhilfe also considerably higher.
  • Pressuring the unemployed into looking for a new job by cutting their benefits is felt to be a bitter mockery here, where there are about 35 unemployed people for every available job.
  • Establishing different amounts of ALG II for East and West Germans is seen by the people in the East as continuously treating them as second-class citizens. Having lived in the socially more equal society of the GDR, they are more sensitive to facts of social injustice.

The PDS is playing an active role in this movement which has grown from the grass-roots level and is organised by local and regional alliances of unemployed associations, citizens’ rights and welfare organisations, helped by some trade unions. The PDS is requested to provide arguments and alternative proposals, propaganda materials, give support through its infrastructure, and mobilise its members and sympathisers to take an active part in the demonstrations. We are deeply convinced that no party or political organisation should try to take the lead of the movement and to instrumentalise it for its own political ends. The activists of the movement are very sensitive to such attempts which would be detrimental to the movement’s development. Therefore all accusations of the government and a part of the media, that the PDS has artificially fuelled the demonstrations for its own political benefit, are pure propaganda and far from the real causes of the matter. People are enraged by the government’s policies and not just blindly following PDS slogans.

True, the PDS’s popularity has grown in the wake of the protests. The people are honouring by this the consistent stance of our party against the government’s anti-social policies from the very beginning. PDS deputies in the Bundestag voted against all steps of the "Hartz" plan. They put forward many alternative proposals hitherto ignored by the governing majority. The lander where the PDS is in coalition governments have on our initiative refused supporting the laws in the upper house, the Bundesrat. Now, we see our main task in bringing to people’s minds our ideas contrary to Schroeder’s anti-social "Agenda 2010," concentrated in our "Social agenda", thus demonstrating that the neo-liberal course of the government is not without alternative.

The PDS supplies Spectre and other English-language publications with informative articles such as this without attributing them to any individual author. Thanks to Helmut Ettinger, who is responsible for this service, for sending us this piece.