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Germany

Schröder Can No Longer Count on Unions' Support

Recent statements by prominent trade unionists suggest a growing disillusionment with the market-friendly, "third-way" policies pursued by the Social Democrat-led government of Gerhard Schröder.

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In happer times two month ago, the Chancellor with union leaders Dieter Schulte (left) and Dieter Hundt (right)

Germany's Social Democratic Party was once seen as the natural ally of organized labor, but with just six months to go until general elections, recent statements by prominent trade unionists suggest a growing disillusionment with the market-friendly, "third-way" policies pursued by Gerhard Schröder's party in government.

Dieter Schulte, president of the DGB confederation of trade unions, said the policies pursued by the SPD-led coalition government with the environmentalist Greens had not fully met the unions' standards in terms of their effects on labor and social justice.

In the 1998 elections, which swept the current government to power after 15 years of Helmut Kohl's center-right coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and Liberal Free Democrats, the DGB spent €3.5 million ($3.1 million) on large-scale campaigning for the SPD.

Schulte said the DGB had not decided whether it would mount another campaign for the September 2002 elections. But he said it would look a little different this time, based as it would be on themes rather than on explicit voting recommendations. He said the DGB would mobilize itself against any attempt to dismantle the social system, whether it came from the political right or left.

Jürgen Peters, vice-president of the powerful IG Metall union for the metals and engineering industries, accused Chancellor Schröder of having moved towards neoliberalism. Workers may well decide that there's no point in voting, he said.

Peters in particular has got it wrong, according to the SPD. "I reject the charges made by IG Metall, which are unsupportable," said the party's parliamentary chief, Peter Struck. And the suggestion that workers should consider withholding their vote "does not correspond to our understanding of how democracy works."

In fact, Schröder, with one eye on the elections, made overtures to the trade unions only last week.

But his approach – designating Edmund Stoiber, the chancellor candidate of the conservative opposition, as the "common enemy" of workers and government – was misjudged, according to Schulte. In his view, pointing out that the alternative is even worse than the current government does not constitute much of an argument for the current government.

This view is backed by Peters. "It doesn't make much difference whether I choose the greater or lesser evil," he said. Struck clearly does not accept this argument. He said the DGB would be well advised to "mount a campaign against Stoiber, who wants to impose further limits on workers' rights."

Struck also reminded the trade unions of pro-labor policies implemented by the present government. These, he said, had included a extension of the system of workplace democracy, reintroduction of full wages in case of sickness and improved protection from dismissal.

It certainly is not true that the trade unions would expect any improvements from a Stoiber government. "We have not forgotten the worker-unfriendly policies of the CDU/liberal government," said Schulte.

But the trade unions are unhappy at the way the government has responded to the problem of high unemployment. They see Finance Minister Hans Eichel's insistence on pursuing the goal of budget consolidation as a real obstacle here. This goal should not be allowed to become an item of dogma, argued Schulte.

If the government continues to plough a course of budget austerity, the main victim will be social policy, he warned. Peters accused the government of pursuing "wildcat budget policies" at the expense of public investments. And neglecting public investments at times of mass unemployment is simply wrong, he argued.

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