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Europe

Opinion: Do Germany's Unions Need To Issue a Mayday?

May 1 is the traditional day of revelry for unions in Germany and Europe. But with EU eastward expansion and the growing pains of globalization, do they have anything to celebrate this year?

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European expansion will bring new challenges for Germany's beleaguered unions.

In many countries, May 1 is the day when the international labor movement celebrates its gains in the areas of political rights and social security. For more than a century, unions have fought for better living standards and improved working conditions. These goals have been largely reached in Germany, but they are under increasing pressure through the onslaught of globalization.

The number of unemployed in Germany is high, and the upcoming enlargement of the European Union has created concerns for both German workers and businesses. The German Trade Union Federation (DGB) is now calling on people to demonstrate on May 1 under the motto: "Our Europe: Free, equal and just."

For the unions, May 1 is interesting for two reasons. Significantly, 10 new countries will be joining the European Union on this day. It is a community that sees itself as responsible for maintaining social goals. Together with workers in the new EU member states, unions want to create a Europe of freedom, equality and tolerance. This community should offer all people the same opportunity to lead a life of self-determination, but not at the expense of people in other parts of the world.

It's a noble goal -- especially considering that in the run-up to the accession date, dark clouds are already starting to form on the horizon of the unified Europe. The unions and Social Democrats complain that more and more German companies are exporting jobs to places like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Employer associations have chalked the changes up to the need to stay competitive, but the unions have their own parlance for it: "wage dumping."

The relationship between the Social Democrats and unions in Germany is already strained. For the first time, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has not been invited to the May demonstrations this year. And at the beginning of the year, leading union bosses like ver.di chief Frank Bsirske marched in the front rows of numerous demonstrations against social cuts made by the government coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party.

In addition to steadily declining membership, the unions are also bothered by something they didn't realize in the past: support for them is lacking in the SPD. The historical common destiny of the Social Democratic Party and the unions has cracked if not broken altogether.

Europe is now coalescing and will be even bigger in the future, with the intended entry of countries like Rumania, Bulgaria and Croatia. It will become an economic colossus with the will and might to compete against strong and ambitious regions like the United States and Asia.

Now unions are making demands for minimum wages and minimum social standards that don't stop at borders. That's why international concerns are getting ready, for cost reasons, to move even further into the east. Following that logic, a place like Hungary is already too expensive in terms of wages. The caravan, it seems, is heading even further east to Ukraine or Belarus. Technology giant Siemens recently created a stir with the announcement that it wants to export a considerable number of the jobs it currently has in Germany to the new EU member states.

The consequence of these corporate policies is a race to take advantage of the lower taxes and social standards in the accession countries. The perception is that high levels of employment go hand in hand with low wages and limited employee rights as well as low corporate taxes. Eastward enlargement could lead to a situation where social welfare systems in the old members of the European Union would be put under further pressure.

With all of these developments, there are two questions one must ask: In the race to become economically competitive and innovative on an international scale, didn't the unions lose their influence long ago? And will their demands for just pay for everyone in Europe turn out to be nothing more than a fading hope?

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