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Not Standing By Their Man

Four years after promising to cut unemployment and reform the labor market, Gerhard Schröder goes into this year’s elections with no results and possibly little support from his party’s traditional ally: the unions.

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The Chancellor measuring the winds of change

It didn’t take long for the congratulations to roll in.

Within a few hours of his election to the head of the Germany Union Association (DGB), Michael Sommer heard about how good a choice he was from leaders of every one of the country’s major political parties.

"The right man for the right job," said Franz Muenterfering, the head of the Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). The opposition Christian Democratic Union’s head, Angela Merkel, said she looked forward to working with Sommer.

The head of the liberals, Guido Westerwelle wished Sommer luck and said from Israel that more jobs can be created "at best with and not against the unions."

With Germany’s elections four months away, the country’s powerful unions – unified under the association – are still up for grabs.

A portion of them have thrown their support behind Schröder and his SPD, continuing the traditional cooperation between the two sides. But with a depressed labor market and a chancellor under pressure to drastically reform Germany’s employment market, full union support for the SPD is anything but secure.

Not taking sides, yet

In his inaugural speech, Sommer (photo) was careful not to come out in favor of any party.

Michael Sommer DGB Kongress

Michael Sommer

"Our members are old enough to decide for themselves, without our recommendation," he said. He added he welcomed any party that wanted to "create a modern social contract," with the DGB, which has 7.9 million members.

Union members approved Sommer with a 94 percent majority. In doing so, they also approved the association’s slight shift to the left. Sommer is predicted to take the association down a bolder, more controversial path than his compromise-willing predecessor Dieter Schulte.

The DGB should be a "means and a motor" to establishing a modern social society in Germany, Sommer said in his speech in Berlin.

Warning to Schröder

Whether it does that with or without the SPD seems to matter little to Sommer.

In a direct comment on Schröder’s ideas on trimming down Germany’s generous social system, Sommer made clear he wanted to see the system expanded, not cut down. He also advocated for tax increases, saying that "only the rich can afford a poor state."

The comments seemed designed to let the chancellor know that the unions expected results if he wanted support.

And if it wasn't clear enough, Sommer planned to make it crystal by taking part in a long meeting in Bavaria with Schröder's main opponent in the coming weeks: conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber and his Christian Democratic and Social Union.

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