German Strikes Drag On, French Protests Escalate | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 02.04.2006
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German Strikes Drag On, French Protests Escalate

"Not again!" is a common response to protests in France, but a number of groups across the Rhine are proving they know how to stage a strike, too. They just don't need to do it as often, experts say.


Unlike the French, German strikers tend to be more focused in their protests

Thomas Muders, an anesthesiologist at the Bonn University Clinic, has been on strike for two weeks, but taking to the street wasn't a decision he made lightly.

"It is true that things have to be pretty bad for doctors to strike," Muders said. "I would rather be treating my patients -- that's why I became a doctor -- but things can't continue the way they are going now."

That feeling is echoed by the doctors, civil servants and, most recently, metal workers who have gone on strike in Germany over the last two months, as well as students and union members across the border in France.

Though both the German and French strikes are directed against planned cuts in the social and labor market, the German protests haven't reached the size or resulted in the outcry heard on the streets of Paris.

Generalstreik in Frankreich Bahnhof TGV gestoppt

General strikes in France shut down many public services

French students first took to the streets three weeks ago to protest a proposed law that would make hiring and firing young employees easier. The demonstrations reached violent proportions that led to hundreds of arrests and left the country in a state of political upheaval last week with additional nationwide protests planned for April 4.

Germans try bargaining first

The political influence of trade unions and other employee associations in Germany is part of what keeps German strikes from reaching violent proportions, according to Henrik Uterwedde of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg.

"It is second nature for German politicians to seek the unions' opinions while they are designing policy," he said. "That is unheard of in France, where the state believes it always knows better."

Experience has taught French workers that more can be achieved by getting politicians' attention on the street than trying to make a deal. German unions, which are consulted before new policies are made, use strikes as a final bargaining chip when they can't otherwise reach a compromise, Uterwedde added.


Germans unions are able to acheive more in negotations than on the street

"German strikes take place when negotiations have reached a dead end," he said. "In France, they are used to force negotiations."

Uterwedde stressed that France's proclivity for striking is the result of protests' past successes and the lack of political sway German associations enjoy, not a hereditary love of thronging into the streets to relive their revolution.

Unions stick to their own issues

An adversity to multi-union strikes is another reason German protests can't match the size of those seen in Paris. The broad social protests common to France are nearly unheard of in Germany, according to Peter Grottian, a political scientist at Berlin's Freie University.

Jahresrückblick 2004 August Hartz IV Demonstration

Unions remaind wary of Germany's 2004 Hartz IV protests

"The trade unions stick to pay-scale confrontations and trying to prevent plant closings, while other social protests, such as the 2004 Hartz IV labor market protests, are organized independently of the unions," he said. "There has not been a serious attempt to bring the two together."

The German doctors, civil servants and metal workers who are currently striking in Germany also have separate, branch-specific contracts and negotiators prefer to concentrate on their particular situation, Uterwedde said.

"German unions wouldn't say, 'Great, we've got three irons in the oven, let's put them together to raise the pressure' because the logic of a German strike connects it to a specific dispute," he said.

Concern also exists among the negotiators that cooperating with other groups could complicate their own situation when they have to go back to the bargaining table. Instead of joining forces, groups avoid becoming involved in too many disputes and focus on bending politicians' ears to their own affairs, Grottian said.

French more willing to accept protests

A wider public acceptance of people taking to the streets also makes work disturbances more common in France than Germany.

"Strikes are seen as a more 'normal' part of social life in France," Uterwedde said. "Since strikes are more seldom in Germany, the tolerance threshold for them is lower."

Ärztestreik in Bonn

Doctors want the public to know why they are striking

People become especially impatient when disruptions occur in the public sector, he said. Not being able to get to work or bring their children to daycare makes Germans less tolerant of strikes than when they are directed at far-away government policies and officials.

Muders, the Bonn clinic anesthesiologist, said he feels making sure people hear why he's striking is essential to keeping popular opinion behind him.

"People are understanding when they hear what the situation is like," he said. "I'm not nervous about patients' comments when the strikes end."

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