Prague, May 22 (RFE/RL) -- Busses, streetcars and
subway trains stopped today for several hours in many large German
cities. So did collections of refuse.
Yesterday, several million letters were left uncollected in post
offices and numerous schools as well, as municipal offices were
It is estimated that, during the last three days, hundreds of
thousands public sector employees halted work in a series of token
strikes in protest against the government's austerity plans.
The German government announced last month its intention to freeze
this year salaries of more than three-million public sector employees. The government also wants to cut sick pay, and modify a system of "rest
cures" that enables workers to spend four weeks every three years in
a rest center, in addition to regular vacations.
The public sector labor unions called for strikes in pressing
demands for 4.5 percent pay rise this year, and in opposition to the
government's plans to reduce the remaining benefits.
Today, representatives of the unions and the government are meeting
for talks on a new contract. Earlier sessions failed to produce
agreements. This time, the unions have used the strikes to put
additional pressure on government officials at federal and local levels.
Government leaders are said to be unmoved by the strikes. Chancellor
Helmut Kohl was said to be "unimpressed" by the protests. Wolfgang
Shaeuble, the parliamentary leader of the majority Christian Democrats,
called on the unions to join in the effort to cut labor
Germany has a very generous welfare system. It also has the world's
highest pay levels. But its economy has recently been slipping.
During the last few years, numerous companies have gone bankrupt.
Unemployment has skyrocketed. And the public debt has rapidly
At the heart of the problem has been the high cost of the existing
welfare system. It has been seriously strained by the massive
expenditures resulting from the absorption of East Germany - its
inhabitants benefit from the system, but have never contributed to it.
It has also been affected by high unemployment, with millions of
people drawing funds but not adding anything. The result is an
economic crisis and spreading social malaise.
In Germany, industrial relations have long been rooted in a
consensual rapport among the government, the labor unions and the
employers. This rapport has been increasingly troubled.
The government's response has been to make a major effort at
reducing the budget deficit by massive spending cuts - the plans
call for cuts worth about 33,000-million dollars this fiscal year.
The public seems to recognize the problem. But the problem is that
no one wants to be the one suffering the pain.
The current strikes have been staged by the public sector alone. The
private sector remains unaffected. But the situation could change.
And if it does, the ensuing social strife could affect government
policies, increase tension between the employers and the union, and
undermine the traditional social and political consensus on what is
good for the country as a whole.
Last year, the French government attempted to introduce a strict
policy of economic austerity. This prompted massive protests by
public sector employees. The government eventually caved in,
eliminating the most severe elements from its program.
Could the same happen in Germany?