Germany in 2006: Bread and circuses - but attacks on living conditions continue

The Grand Coalition of the SPD and Christian Democrats has now been in office for some months. Its programme is “more of the same”, further privatisations and cuts in social spending. Although this may hold for a while, beneath the surface a new mood is developing. The signs are already there in some significant strikes such as that of the Gate Gourmet workers.

The Football World Cup will be held in Germany this summer. This mega event will of course overshadow national politics in the media and absorb quite some attention from the masses. In spite of this “bread and circuses” factor they will not be able to hide the growing social malaise that is building up within German society.

In mid-November, a new government was sworn in. For the first time since the late 1960s, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are governing together in a grand coalition. It is natural that the coming to power of such a government based upon a cosy two thirds majority of seats in the Bundestag, the German parliament, should be seen as a new start and that under the influence of the bourgeois media sections of the population should give them a chance and hope that the major political forces in the country will close ranks to solve the big problems facing the nation. The fact that the union apparatuses have a “wait-and-see” attitude towards the coalition will extend this breathing space for the new government for some time. Yet it is pretty obvious that this new coalition lead by Christian Democrat Angela Merkel will not deliver the goods. Already, a number of important political differences between the coalition partners are coming to the surface and are openly being discussed in the media by leading politicians from both sides.

What the coalition partners have agreed on is a continuation of the attacks on the welfare state carried out by the previous coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens under Schröder. There will be no nominal rise in pensions for years to come. The retirement age is to be increased from year to year. Legal protection against unfair dismissal will be further undermined. Harsh cuts in the budget will seriously affect many sectors of public spending such as unemployment benefits and public transport and increase the pressure for further privatisations.

Unemployment

Neither leading politicians nor bourgeois economists are promising that their operations will in effect bring about a long-lasting and sustained economic boom. On the contrary, the so called “Hartz reforms” that were ushered in some three years ago and were supposed to bring about a decisive change in the “labour market” and reduce unemployment by two million have turned out to be a failure in every respect.

The introduction of a system of forced labour, coloured as “1 euro jobs”, is increasingly going to undermine the union contracts that so far have guaranteed a decent income for workers. Though statistics are always manipulated in more than one way, there is no hope for a serious reduction in official unemployment which is presently oscillating around the figure of 4.6 million or 11 per cent of the total workforce. Some bourgeois economists fear that as soon as the new government increases VAT from 16 to 19 % in January 2007, this could precipitate a new recession.

And there is more bad news every day as – without exception – all the major companies and monopolies keep announcing massive cuts in jobs. In November, the privatised Deutsche Telekom company, which is increasingly going global, announced it was cutting the workforce by 32,000 over the next two years. While making huge profits in the region of 4-5 billion Euros per year, the Telecom managers are not satisfied with this level and are hell-bent on squeezing the remaining workforce even more. This has caused a massive wave of protests over the last few weeks. What is significant is the fact that union activists have told us that, unlike some seven or ten years ago, now the mass of the population are sympathetic towards union protest. “Whereas in the past people would call us ‘lazy civil servants’, now passers-by understand what we are fighting for and are prepared to support our protest”, a local union activist and Telekom shop steward commented to me just before Christmas.

Locusts

It has become popular in Germany to criticise monopolies and financial investors as “locusts” that just come around to devour the profitable parts and then leave behind a desert. Yet SPD leader Franz Müntefering   who scored points last spring when he voiced some criticism of the “locusts” and popularised this expression   is now the Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Labour in Mrs Merkel’s cabinet and is not willing to propose any serious legislation to stop the locusts from winding up industry and ruthlessly extracting profits. On the contrary, the next major project for privatisation is that of the Germany Railways (DB = Deutsche Bahn) which are still state owned. The DB managers are already behaving like any other capitalist management and would like to go for an IPO as quickly as possible to sell DB shares worth billions of euros to American “locusts”.

However, whenever a group of workers is prepared to fight against intolerable working conditions worsened under the pressure of locust investors, such a fight can acquire impressive dimensions. Thus, the workers at the Gate Gourmet airline catering plant at Düsseldorf airport have been striking for three months against all the odds. This dispute, which began in early October as a way of exerting more pressure for a moderate 4.5 per cent pay rise, has turned into static warfare as the owners, the US based Texas Pacific Group, are not sparing any pains or efforts to break the strike. The determination and perseverance of the Gate Gourmet workers is finding an echo and admiration nationally and internationally.

In the coming weeks a lot of attention in the unions will also be focused on mobilising against the proposed EU Directive on services in the internal market (“Bolkestein directive”) as this is rightly seen as a major threat to all the gains achieved over the past decades.

The SPD went through a crisis of leadership in early November but then boasted that they had overcome the problems within 48 hours. Former chancellor Schröder is out of politics and has found new, easier and better paid jobs in the business world within days of leaving office. He must be the only 61-year-old man in the country to find a new job at all. The new party chairman is Matthias Platzeck, prime minister in the Eastern state of Brandenburg who is seen as “everyone’s darling” in the party. Yet Platzeck, who undoubtedly has some skills as a public speaker, has never been on the left. He has always supported Schröder’s neoliberal agenda and has been involved in a coalition government with the Christian Democrats in his own home state for a numbers of years. What is left of the left-wingers in the SPD leadership and parliamentary party is a handful of tame and intimidated MPs who do not fundamentally oppose the coalition, let alone agitate for a break with the Christian Democrats, although – for the third consecutive time – the classical bourgeois and right-wing parties (CDs and Liberals) have failed to win a parliamentary majority. It is quite likely that in the medium term, increasing class polarisation will also be reflected within the SPD. But this does not seem to be the immediate perspective.

Under the leadership of Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD leader who broke with Schröder in 1999 and resigned from the party in May 2005, the Left Party (an alliance of the former PDS and the WASG, an SPD breakaway) gained 8,7 per cent in the September elections nationally and 54 seats in the new Bundestag. The process of merger between both parties is under way and will be concluded by early 2007. A series of local and regional elections in March will also reveal if after the success in the September elections the Left is substantial and capable of building further support. Whatever happens, many people feel that Germany is now heading for social earthquakes in the not too distant future.

January 6, 2006