More than half a million Germans on Monday took part in about 500 Labor Day rallies as trade unionists warned the government of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel not to cut back social benefits as it tackles reforms.
Labor Day still moves Germans to takes to the streets
"We are not going to stand by and watch the government take apart the public health system piece by piece," Franz Bsirske, the president of the public service trade union Verdi, told a protest in Berlin.
The head of the powerful metal workers' union IG Metall, Jürgen Peters, said in the southern city of Munich that trade unions should stand firm against any attempt to implement "social reforms that take us backwards."
"We already have five million unemployed people. And those who have jobs are made to work longer so that those who don't have even less of a chance of finding work," he said.
Bsirske and Peters were referring to plans to reform the public health system and to raise the national retirement age to 67 years, up from 63 for women and 65 for men.
Merkel's government of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats was due to discuss health and tax reforms on Monday and to hold talks later in the month on prolonging the traditional trial period of six months for young employees to two years.
"France's problems are Germany's"
The president of the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), Michael Sommer, lashed out against the youth contract reform at a rally in Wolfsburg, the central city that is home to the headquarters of car maker Volkswagen.
Sommer compared Germany to France
"The government should not put in place anti-social policies," Sommer said. Evoking the recent outcry in France over a youth jobs law which would have made it easier for companies to hire and fire people under 26, he added: "What is wrong in France is also wrong in Germany."
Sommer said the DGB, the umbrella body for German trade unions, was launching a campaign to defend the dignity of workers and lashed out at employers "whose main objective is their own bank accounts and not the dignity of their workers."
Demonstrators' numbers overwhelm neo-Nazis
In Leipzig, neo-Nazis and thousands of left-wing protestors pelted each other with stones and bottles, police said. The violence broke out as some 5,000 people tried to stop protest marches by about 550 neo-Nazis in Leipzig by blocking the streets with burning trash cans, the police said. Some 2,000 policemen who had been brought in from around the country eventually separated the two groups, arresting 20 people.
"No Sex With Neo-Nazis" read the demonstrators' banner
In the northeastern city of Rostock some 500 members of Germany's extreme right National Democratic Party clashed with about 4,000 counter protestors, the police said, adding that they arrested 40 people there.
In Germany neo-Nazi demonstrations often provoke much larger counter protests and end in clashes with the police, particularly on May Day.
Quiet in Berlin, so far
In Berlin's Kreuzberg district, which is home to a large Turkish community, several hundred people marched through the streets in support of Kurdish and Maoist organizations on Monday. Police said they were expecting left-wing groups to launch protests in Kreuzberg later in the day.
The area is known for unrest during Walpurgis Night, May Day's Eve celebrations, which have their roots in a pagan spring rite. But police chief Dieter Glietsch said Sunday night was one of the quietest Walpurgis celebrations in years.