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German Unions Call For a Free, Equal and Just Europe

As the EU celebrates its enlargement, trade unionists and members of leftists groups rallied in Germany to mark the labor day holiday, criticizing the government and drawing attention to the plight of workers in Europe.

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"Nothing is good this way" -- unions oppose the government's reform plans.

While fireworks went off and politicians popped the corks on champagne bottles at celebrations honoring Europe's historic enlargement, thousands of people gathered at protest marches and rallies throughout Germany on May Day, the traditional workers' holiday.

The main rally took place in Berlin where the DGB Trade Union Association voiced its criticism of the German government's labor reform plans against the backdrop of the EU expansion which was ushered in on the same day. Gathered under the banner "Our Europe -- Free, Equal and Just," union members and leaders attacked Chancellor Gerhard Schöder's widely unpopular "Agenda 2010" reform package as being "neither social nor just."

The set of reform proposals which covers, among others, changes to the national healthcare system, a revamping of unemployment subsidies and a streamlining of the social welfare benefits program, were introduced by Schröder and the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens in order to kickstart the sputtering German economy.

"For two-thirds of Germans, Agenda 2010 has become a synonym for a society with plenty of poor and a few rich," proclaimed DGB chief Michael Sommer, in reference to the many Germans who have to dig deep into their pockets after their social benefits are cut. He listed the lower work salaries, increased work hours and "labor conditions from the 19th century" as reasons to oppose the current government's reform proposals.

Referring to the EU's enlargement, Sommer challenged politicians to go beyond the rhetoric of the past few months. "I can only warn our politicians to take the concerns of our people and those in the accession countries more seriously. They're worried about their jobs and social benefits," he told a crowd of several thousand in front of Berlin's city hall.

"Let me spell this out very clearly: We're not content with just a couple of well-phrased assertions concerning the enlarged bloc's bright future and merry-making across the EU on this day!"

Unions face off against government

The unionists, traditional allies of Schröder's Social Democratic Party, see themselves increasingly alienated from the government. They oppose the set of social and labor reforms which slash long-term unemployment subsidies and introduce new hiring laws to make it easier for employers to lay off staff. They accuse Schröder and his economic advisors of putting the needs of big business before those of the workers.

The head of the builders' union, Klaus Wiesenhügel, accused the government of practicing the wrong politics, because "everyone's going to lose except for the very few wealthy people." But the opposition conservatives don't present much of an alternative, he said: "They want to turn our society into a paradise for the rich and a labor camp for the rest of us."

At a big rally in the western city of Mannheim, the head of the country's largest industrial union, IG Metall, told a crowd of about 3,000 people that other better reforms are possible. "We want to apply pressure with a widespread citizen's initiative," union chief Jürgen Peters said, announcing the start of a nationwide petition against Schröder's plans.

Schröder, who in the past has always attended the May Day rallies, was not included in this year's events. According to his spokesperson, the chancellor was too busy with EU enlargement activities to participate in the union's demonstrations. Union organizers, however, said Schröder was not even invited this year.

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