EUROPE PROTESTS BITTER CUTS
By David Bacon

        BERLIN, GERMANY (4/6/04) - Europe's war between unions, 
trying to protect the remnants of the welfare state, and governments 
bent on shredding them further, brought a million people into the 
streets on Sunday.  Half a million came out in both Berlin and Rome, 
while smaller numbers demonstrated in France and other German cities. 
For the first time, they've coordinated demonstrations in a 
multi-country response
        This is no longer a simple war of left versus right.  In 
Italy and France, labor federations are defying the rightwing 
Berlusconi and Chirac governments.  But in Germany, unions are 
fighting with the party they themselves created, and its chancellor, 
Gerhard Schroeder.
        Left or right, European governments have been proposing 
similar reforms, from Paris to Stockholm, Berlin to Rome.  They want 
to cut payments to retired workers, and ask people to work longer. 
They want benefits to the unemployed to drop as well, even while 
unemployment rates average over 8%, in Germany and 10% in Italy.
        In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, thousands of 
workers created a sea of red flags and banners, carrying the symbols 
of IG Metall, the German industrial federation, and Ver.di, the 
social services and public sector union.  But in a most un-German 
fashion, many came with their own hand-lettered signs, voicing deep 
resentment and a growing scorn for the chancellor their votes put 
into office.
        On one, the abbreviation of the Social-Democratic Party, 
which in German is SPD, was given another meaning: -- Social Plunder 
Party.  Another made an ironic comparison between the death benefit 
Schroeder's relatives will get when he dies, about 20,000 Euros 
(($25,000) and the average benefit a worker's relatives receive, 
about 500 Euros ($625).  Schroeder's Agenda 2010 reform package would 
cut this benefit.  A third banner demanded that the well-paid 
university economists, who provide the scholarly justification for 
cuts, take the medicine they prescribe for those further down the 
salary scale.
        The most common hand-made sign had no slogan - just an 
extended middle finger with Schroeder's name on the palm.  Voicing 
the sentiment of the huge crowd, Jurgen Peters, the head of IG 
Metall, declared, "we're fed up with so-called reforms that we pay 
for, but which benefit others."
        Wolfgang Mueller, a union representative for IG Metall in 
high tech industry, explained the anger.  "In Germany right now the 
so-called welfare state is being destroyed," he said.  "It started a 
long time ago with minor cuts.  Now the Red/Green government is 
starting to do real damage, with big cuts."
        German labor is still politically strong, representing 28% of 
the country's workers (in contrast to 12% in the US.)  One result of 
that strength is that workers in Germany's equivalent to Silicon 
Valley belong to unions. In plants belonging to both US companies 
like Hewlett-Packard, and big German semiconductor and equipment 
producers like Infineon and Siemens, companies must bargaining with a 
vocal and organized workforce. High tech workers from Munich and 
southern Germany were well represented in Sunday's demonstration, and 
Mueller has helped lead them through an entire yearlong guerilla 
campaign to derail Schroeder's plans.
        An articulate man in his early 40s, Mueller smiles and waves 
his arms, growing heated in explaining the anger he obviously shares. 
"We elected Mr. Schroeder, not management," he insists, "and he won 
for two reasons.  First, he was against the US war in Iraq.  Second, 
he promised to secure the welfare state, especially for the 
lowest-paid people.  Now he is betraying this second set of promises, 
and people in the unions, in the Social Democratic Party, feel 
betrayed."
        Mueller and his coworkers see Schroeder, not just as an 
individual, but as a representative of a political class.  They point 
out that a normal pension for a male worker in Germany averages 1100 
Euros, and the average for women is half of that.  In contrast, a 
member of the Federal or state parliament qualifies for a pension of 
5000-7000 Euros a month after only eight years.
        Unions say Agenda 2010 hits hardest at the poorest and most 
vulnerable.  Under present German law, companies that lay off workers 
have to select those with few years of service, or who don't care for 
relatives and children.  Schroeder proposes to allow companies to use 
a more subjective, "performance-based" criteria.  Current 
unemployment benefits, which are much less than a normal working 
wage, last for 32 months.  Schroeder proposes to cut them to 12 
months.
        The most galling change for workers is in sick pay.  Under 
current law, employers pay the first six weeks of illness.  Then a 
social security system pays 80% of lost wages for as long as the 
illness lasts.  That system is financed by workers, who pay 1% of 
their salary for it.  Schroeder proposes to require workers to buy 
private insurance to cover these payments, if they can.  Workers are 
incensed, since they've already paid for these benefits over the 
years.
        "Schroeder promises that with these reforms there will be 
more jobs, but experience shows there is no relation between cuts in 
social security and higher employment," Mueller counters.  "On the 
contrary, workers will be forced to save money to cover these risks, 
which will cut consumer spending. The reforms will deepen our 
economic recession."
        Schroeder has told the press that not only will he not 
withdraw Agenda 2010, but if dissenters in his own party derail it, 
he will resign.  Yet since proposing it, the SPD's popularity has 
dropped.  The next national election is scheduled for 2006, but were 
it held now, the party would likely lose.  It faces 13 regional 
elections this coming year, and may even lose SPD strongholds like 
North Rhine/Westphalia, where it's governed for 39 years.  In France, 
Chirac's party suffered a devastating loss in March's local 
elections, directly due to its own reform proposals.
        Nevertheless, Schroeder's advice to Germans in a radio 
interview the day before the demonstrations was to stay the course. 
"When you organize a reform process, you have a problem," he told 
them.  "The burdens become apparent immediately.  The positive 
effects will come later."
        Workers don't believe it.  "They think he's a liar," Mueller says.


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