Matt Heaney reports from Berlin
"For work and social justice in Europe, against cuts. Stand up, so things will finally get better!"
Half a million took to the streets in Germany on Saturday 3 April to protest at welfare cuts being pushed through by the Social Democrat-Green coalition government, known by the rather innocent-sounding name of "Agenda 2010".
The protests, held in Berlin, Cologne, and Stuttgart, were called by the German trade union confederation DGB, as part of a Europe-wide day of action called by the European TUC. John Monks, ETUC leader, called for "millions to be involved...[to] make an impact on the thinking of governments, businesses and all citizens". Sadly, most ETUC member organisations chose to sit back and do next-to-nothing.
The British TUC, for example, chose to mark the "day of action" with press conferences with Labour MEPs and a booklet aimed at union reps on the advantages of the "European social model". (That's the one currently being abolished, but the TUC doesn't seem to have noticed that.)
There was a march of 5,000 in Paris, as well as demonstrations in Ljubiana (Slovenia) and Bratislava (Slovakia).
The feeling on the Berlin demonstration was positive. Trade unionists and unemployed groups from across eastern Germany were present, armed with union flags and placards. Workers from all sectors could be seen, from engineers (IG Metall), education workers (GEW), health service staff and other public sector employees (Verdi), to railway workers (Transnet), miners and chemical workers (IG BCE), builders (IG BAU), and the police (GdP). Apart from trade unionists, there were contigents from unemployed groups, pensioners, students, and church organisations.
Many unions had organised free transport to Berlin, and there was a huge advertising campaign, urging people to "stand up so things will get better". On the Friday evening, the unions' youth sections organised a concert - but why weren't the bouncers union members or being paid the agreed union wage?
At the closing rally with the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop, DGB leader Michael Sommer played well to the crowd.
"This closing of ranks between unions and students, welfare rights groups and pensioners, between the unemployed and the apprentices, from left wingers in the parties to church groups, the peace movement and globalisation critics - in Germany, we too have created this new alliance, an alliance of solidarity, and this alliance will remain, brothers and sisters... The Chancellor, and the Christian Democrats, the business leaders and the managers have to know, that if these anti-social policies don't come to an end, we will be back!"
At the 150,000 strong rally in Stuttgart, Frank Bzirske, leader of the United Services Union, Verdi, said, "This can be the start of a real people's movement - a movement from the centre of society - a people's movement for social justice."
IG Metall leader Jürgen Peters told 100,000 in Cologne:
"Our message is this - we've had enough of economic crises and mass unemployment, of stagnating pay packets and managers' exploding wages! And we're sick of so-called reforms that we have to pay for but benefit the others! We've heard the same tune for years - first it must get worse, before it can get better. What a load of rubbish!"
A lot of fighting talk - so why did the unions stay silent when these reforms were going through (and passed by) parliament?
A lack of confidence perhaps after some important defeats, for example over the 35-hour-week in the east German engineering sector. But that "lack of confidence" must surely be gone by now. The government is very unpopular. An opinion poll for television station ZDF said this week that 73% find Schröder's reforms "socially unjust" (up from 55% in February).
The bosses' and the Christian Democrats' attempts to present the protesters as dinosaurs and extremists must surely fail.
The SPD and the Greens would certainly lose any general election held this week - but the opposition Christian Democrats and Liberals want to cut even more, to force longer hours for less pay, to go as far as to abolish the right to strike (which is extremely restrictive anyway). But there is, currently at least, no alternative to these four parties.
Whether a "people's movement" can be built or not, depends to a great extent on the union leaderships. But that will take different leaders from the current ones.