Frank Bsirske, head of the German public sector union ver.di, infuriated the coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens over the weekend by telling the newspaper Welt am Sonntag that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's social and economic reform policy has been a huge failure.
"Measured against his claim that he would create jobs, reduce joblessness and pep up the economy, Gerhard Schröder has been a failure," Bsirske told the paper.
Bsirske acknowledged that cuts to the country's generous social welfare system were needed to keep it afloat, while at the same time making the allegation that the government's policy had by no means led to better employment opportunities in the country. Economic growth rates remain at well below 1 percent this year after three years of total stagnation.
Move could hurt Social Democrats
For Bsirske's part, the move was calculated. Himself a member of the Green Party, he knows his criticism will primarily hurt the Social Democrats. The SPD's popularity has fallen to an unparalleled low in recent months, while the Greens have recorded major gains in regional elections despite the fact that, as the SPD's junior coalition partner, they are also responsible for Germany's current social and economic policies.
Bsirske, as well as other union leaders, are hoping to strengthen the rebellious left-wingers within the SPD -- many of whom harbor nagging doubts about the political reorientation of their party, which has traditionally represented the interests of the underprivileged in society.
Schröder: I'm not budging
For his part, Schröder told the newsweekly Der Spiegel that the "unions need to abandon their abstract considerations instead ask concrete questions in their companies." Schröder said the unions should focus on what's really best for their workers. The chancellor also categorically refused to make any additional change to his labor reform laws. "I'm not going to do any more snipping," he said, referring to his Agenda 2010 reform plan.
Green Party chief Reinhard Bütikofer did what was expected of him and dismissed Bsirske’s criticism as "unfounded" and "unconstructive." And deputy SPD chief Kurt Beck brushed off Bsirske’s demand for a change of course in the reform process as "nonsense."
"A change of course – what’s that supposed to mean?" Beck asked. "Weren’t we all agreed that considering our own demographic problems and global developments our social system has to be changed in order to survive at all? And weren’t we all agreed that the necessary reforms could not be carried out without sacrifices? So I don’t really understand why some are now calling on the government to revise its policy. We don’t have the right to change our course, because we were elected to do the things that are necessary for Germany to become competitive again."
Row to enter new round
The row between the government and the trade unions is expected to enter yet another round on Wednesday, when an inter-parliamentary arbitration committee is scheduled to agree on the details of combining Germany's welfare and unemployment benefits starting next year. The move is expected to create even greater hardships for the economically disadvantaged.
"It looks as if there is no capacity and no mechanisms in place to make job placement procedures more efficient as of Jan. 1 of next year," said Hermann-Joseph Ahrentz, the social affairs spokesman for the conservative opposition Christian Democratic Union.
"But since long-term unemployed people will get fewer benefits under the new plan, they should at least have the opportunity to find work more easily. But I can’t see this happening. This is why the government’s policy can only be described as a rush job and a patchwork, and as socially unjust, since it hits the poor and underprivileged once again."
A conundrum for the SPD's base
An editorial in the Monday issue of the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper concluded that the spat between unions and the SPD is making it impossible for core Social Democrat voters to maintain their loyalty to both their party and the trade unions. Both are complaining about dwindling membership. Bsirske and His Colleagues Are Well Aware that with a conservative government at the helm in 2006 the unions are even less likely to strike a deal for softer reforms.
But the unions may have another strategy altogether. As Bsirske noted on Sunday: the unions could much more easily fight a conservative chancellor than a Social Democrat who claims to be on the unions' side.