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Germany

Reform Opponents Ponder "What Now?"

Last year, an opposition movement gained momentum protesting the German government’s welfare and labor market reforms. But now that reforms are a reality, protest groups are looking at ways to keep the opposition alive.

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Reform opponents can only dream of getting crowds like these today

The idea was to paralyze labor offices in at least 80 German cities on January 3, the first day that the controversial Hartz IV reforms went into effect. The project to achieve that, named “Agency Shutdown,” called on reform opponents to turn out in the numbers they did last summer to “occupy” job centers and, in effect, shut them down.

The call largely went unheeded.

Government officials estimated that only about 700 protesters gathered at branches of the Federal Labor Office across the country, although protest leaders said around 15,000 took part in protests nationwide. Still, it was a far cry from the tens of thousands -- at one point 150,000 -- who turned out in August and September at the “Monday demonstrations” to show their opposition to Chancellor Schröder’s controversial plan to breathe new life into Germany’s labor market.

“Agency Shutdown was not a big success,” said Peter Wahl, a co-founder of attac, the anti-globalization group which played a large role in organizing last summer’s protests.

According to him, its failure is a result of a feeling of resignation that has set in among many protesters. They felt themselves to be part of a popular, democratic movement last year, but watched in frustration as the government stood its ground and in the end, only made a few cosmetic changes to a reform plan reviled by many. In January, Hartz IV officially went into effect.

“People are indeed very dissatisfied with these so-called reforms,” he said. “But they have the feeling they can’t change anything.”

Demonstranten protestieren am Montag, 3. Januar 2005, vor dem Arbeitsamt in Duisburg gegen die Einfuehrung der Hartz IV-Gesetze.(AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Now, attac is considering what to do next regarding the unwelcome reforms. The group is an international organization which addresses several issues, and for now, the reform issue in Germany has taken a back seat. At present attac does not have any plans to continue with a new series of Monday demonstrations.

Wahl said the group was on “stand-by,” ready to get on board if a new protest wave is ignited by popular indignation over the effects of the labor and welfare changes. But he's not holding his breath.

"At the moment, there is nothing worth mentioning going on,” he said. “There are several groups who are trying to keep going with the Monday demonstrations, but they aren’t very effective.”

Shaky determination

Mag Wompel, an editor at Labournet Germany, an Internet site which links labor activists and helped organize the “Agency Shutdown” project, agrees that the protest movement has lost some of the steam it had last summer. But while it did not have the hoped-for effect, she insists it was not in vain. According to her, it resulted in new alliances by people in several cities who are still active in their opposition to Schröder’s reform plans.

“As long as there are Hartz laws, we will continue to stage actions and protests,” she said.

Arbeitslosenbeschäftigung

The protests that are now taking place have none of the visibility of last year’s. Indeed, many of them are hardly public protests at all, but have taken the form of supporting those unemployed who are directly affected by the new welfare rules and helping them navigate the system.

Still, resignation is not an emotion Wompel will admit to.

“Not at all, otherwise I’d just stay in bed and give up on my work,” she said. “Although sometimes that’s tempting.”

Mondays, toned down

There are some who are still hitting the streets on Mondays, determined not to the let the excitement of last summer die. They hold out hope that the protest fever will shoot up again.

“The protests, I believe, happen like waves and they aren’t over yet,“ Martin Keßler, a documentary film maker who filmed last summer’s protests, said in an interview with Berlin’s taz newspaper. “Something really started moving then.”

Nur wenige Protestteilnehmer zu Hartz IV versammeln sich am Montag (03.01.2005) vor der Arbeitsvermittlungsagentur in Mainz.

But it appears to have hit a patch of inertia and eager protesters are harder to find on the streets these days. At the beginning of the year, in large cities like Frankfurt or Leipzig, fewer than 100 people turned out to protest in each. While protests in Berlin were a little larger -- police estimated 400 on Jan. 3 -- those numbers are also dwindling.

According to Egbert Balzer, a spokesperson for the Berlin Monday Demonstration Alliance, the protest movement is not dying, but merely considering its options.

“It’s winter and cold and the government won this first round,” he said. “Now we have to form new strategies and have to think seriously about what we're going to do now.”

While he said the future was difficult to predict, he added that when the population realizes how the new reforms are increasing poverty in Germany, they would go back out on the streets and demand change.

His organization still puts out the call for people to meet up every Monday at a central Berlin location and keep the protest torch burning.

People haven't given up, he insisted. Although this Monday, he himself won't be there; he doesn't have the time.

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