It was a perfect day out in the small market square called Fischmarkt (Fish Market) in Erfurt, the state capital of Thuringia in central Germany. All was quiet for the entire day- that was until 3:00 in the afternoon on the 6th of March, when the square was filled to the brim with people dressed in red and white, green and black, and neon yellow vests with a red, black and white warning sign that says Soziale Schieflage (Social Inequality) on the back. While there are many specialty restaurants and ice cream parlors surrounding the square, these people were not at Fischmarkt to eat and socialize. They were lining up in front of the historic Erfurt City Hall, a gothic style building dating back to the Renaissance Era, which lights up in shades of orange at night. And while they were celebrating International Women’s Day, honoring the millions of women in the world who contribute their time and energy in their work either in the public or private sector, the gathering went beyond honoring the women carrying the pink and red roses they received in their honor.
Oh no, this went well beyond that. On this day, at least 2,500 demonstrators gathered to march on the Staatskanzlei (State Chancellery Office) to demand better pay and working conditions. This not only consisted of those who teach at various education institutions, like the public schools and universities, but also those working in the forestry, police department, and other public works facilities. Every single union representing each sector was on hand to deliver one message to the politicians in Thuringia and all of Germany, which was “we want a pay increase of 3% plus an additional 50 Euros in our wallets,” and “we want unlimited contracts so that we can settle down in our jobs and not roam around like nomads,” and “we want to have a family friendly environment so that we can establish our existence,” and “we are not willing to go to the western part to work,” and lastly “we want to be paid just as much as our counterparts in the western parts of Germany!” The writing was on the wall, the sidewalks at the Staatskanzlei and Fischmarkt, and on the faces of many who were disgruntled that the debate over reforming the public sector and the pay has been dragging on for over four years and now the agreement must be settled before the end of the week at the absolute latest. Should it not be settled beforehand, it is possible that strikes could take place before the end of the month at the earliest, with the hardest hit area being the educational sectors, where the teachers could walk off the job, leaving the students without someone in front of the blackboard to teach.
As the people march toward the Staatskanzlei to present the demands, one has to think of how well off Germany has been in terms of its economy in the past year and a half, with a growth in the gross domestic product of 2.3% for all of last year and the constant decline in the unemployment rate since Angela Merkel took over as chancellor in 2004- that is minus the slight decline during the financial crisis of 2008-09. Yet still, cuts in financial support for the public sector, including the universities, have been in the works for over a year, with the purpose of reducing the inflation rate to comply with the standards introduced by the European Union in 1999. This has sparked protests that have been ongoing since the middle of last year throughout all of Germany, including the state of Thuringia, where a massive protest involving over 7,000 students took place in November in Erfurt, demanding that the state not slash the budget by 20% and sack employees at the same time. While the budget cuts were passed anyway, the working conditions of those working in the public sector were now the top agenda for the following reasons: The workers were getting less pay, some sectors had to shed people (including the police force), universities are offering only limited contracts forcing many to emigrate to other regions should they run out, and the population is aging rapidly- the babyboomer generation is retiring, and there are not enough positions to fill due to poor pay in the eastern part in comparison with the western part. Furthermore, the distribution of wealth between the private and public sectors has been uneven for a long time, with the public sector receiving the lesser end of the stick. Henceforth, the march on the Staatskanzlei was deemed a necessity, in order to guarantee better pay and working conditions before the agreement on reforming the public sector is settled.
And as the Bonga, Conga, and Madal players lead the pack of demonstrators across the City Hall Bridge, one could also imagine what the situation would look like if Germany was like the United States at the moment, where talks of abolishing the collective bargaining deals with the unions in Wisconsin might play out throughout the rest of the country, and how students and pupils may suffer from it, if they have teachers, professors, and other lecturers standing in front of the classroom knowing that they are being paid less, having to use that money to pay for health insurance and other social expenses where it is automatically taken out and in a really small percentage of our paychecks in Germany, and knowing that their institutions are using teaching materials dating back to 20 years ago, as they cannot afford to buy up-to-date material- something that is unheard of in Germany and other places in Europe and the rest of the world. But yet the countries still look to the US as a role model for cutting back on the budget for the purpose of increasing consumption; something that is foreign to many who believe that this is short term thinking and would decrease their standard of living, something that is noticeable in the US no matter where you go. Â Should these cuts continue, then there is a danger that only a small elite few will receive the education that is usually provided to everyone from kindergarten up until college, this leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Then there is the danger, which social padagogue Pestalozzi claimed that the uneducated will become beasts who cannot be controlled. Therefore, he claims that it is important to teach the children as early as possible so that they become civilized as adults. Apart from the basics (like reading, writing and mathematics), his includes the introduction of social sciences, as it is important to know about one’s country and background in order to know onesself better, and sciences to allow those who want to develop new products and scientific theories to do so. Â The question is how effective are these cuts? According to scholars and writers, like Fareed Zakaria, they do nothing but hinder the success of the countries in comparison to those, like the ones in Scandinavia Southeast Asia and the Benelux Region who have ranked in the top ten for the past decade. As for the US and the rest, they’re slipping to the 15-25th ranking in sciences, mathematics, reading, writing and humanities. With this danger, the question is whether this concept is efficient or should a person look at other alternatives? In the eyes of the demonstrators, scholars, students, and teachers, those who demand a higher quality of education and something in return for what they are providing to those wanting to learn something interesting and important, this cost cutting concept is not working.
As the protesters finally arrived at the Thuringian Staatskanzlei, located about a kilometer from the starting point of the demonstration at Fischmarkt, the number of demonstrators picked up and the motivation grew as they demanded an explanation from the politicians and the state employers of why they cannot get a 3% increase in their salary plus additional money to deal with the increasing costs, while at the same time the economy is expanding and businesses are hiring people. But unlike the November demonstrations in front of the state parliament building south of the train station, no politician came to answer the questions that were posed by the union leaders, let alone listen to the demands and the reasons for them. Were they away on business or were they unwilling to listen? One may never know. But one fact is for sure and that is the longer the state ignores the pleas of those working in the public sector, the more voices demaning change will grow until the demands are met. This is the mentality that has worked well with unionized workers in many sectors, including the locomotive drivers who went on strike many times for higher incomes, and actually received at least a lion’s share of the demands by the German Railways and other private railway companies. Can this work for the public sector and especially in the education sector, as the students need some stability in a teacher who stays for longer than two years and is paid just as much as his counterpart in the western part? The question will be answered in the coming days, as union leaders and the state will sit down and come up with a good bargain that everyone will be happy with. At the moment, there is an impasse, but it cannot last forever.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thuringia was not the only state that took to the streets to protest for equal and better pay plus better working conditions. On this day, almost all of the eastern states- Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, and Mecklenburg-Pommerania experienced similar demonstrations in their capitals (Dresden, Magdeburg, Potsdam, and Rostock) but in the tens of thousands. In Dreden alone, over 20,000- mostly educators on all levels- marched onto the capital complex and protested all afternoon, effectively shutting down schools for the day. At the present time, negotiations between the finance minister of Lower Saxony and chief negotiator of the public sector of Germany Hartmut MÃ¶llring and the labor unions representing the education sector, public service (police, street maintenance, forest service, etc.), the public health sector, the finance sectors, and other institutions belonging to the public sector. The hardest hit areas are in the public health and education sectors due to the aging population and lack of opportunities for the younger generations because of poor pay. Both sides claim that the offers brought to the table are unrealistic, however MÃ¶llring believes that a compromise can be brought up before the debate comes to a close.
INTERESTING FACT I: The Public Sector, consisting of over 4.5 million state-owned employees, is the largest employer in Germany and covers the above mentioned sectors. This includes those working at Germany’s 370 universities, 9 of them are located in Thuringia. Â The debate over unequal pay between the west and east has been a key issue since German reunification in 1990 as workers in the eastern part are being paid less than their western counterparts. Furthermore, the demand for structural reforms in the pay system has been on the table as well, as many claim that the old system, which the east adopted from the west is outdated. Â The plan is to equal the pay between west and east and modernize the system so that everyone has the right to work in the public sector and stay there for a longer period of time because of improved working conditions.
INTERESTING FACT II: In connection with the budget cuts and the need to disable and even eliminate unions, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker wants to eliminate collective bargaining between the public sector and the employees and labor unions in order save money. The state, like almost every state in the union has a budget deficit in the billions of dollars. This has prompted Democratic senators, opposed to voting on the bill, to flee the state in exile, as the Republicans have the majority of the state congress (House of Representatives and the Senate). This has effectively and perpetually delayed any attempts to vote on the measure, which some fear will result in the union being disbanded and the public sector doing with the employees what they please, which would include eliminating health care benefits, pay cuts, and even layoffs. The governor has threatened massive layoffs in the public sector, should the Democrats not return to the capital to vote on the measure, and the people- many of whom have been protesting in the hundreds of thousands outside the state capital building in Madison- are getting the ball rolling for recall elections of many Republican politicians and even the governor. Other states, including California, are watching this closely as they might mull this possibility to trim their debts as well. Germany has not gone that far, but anything is possible in the world of free enterprise and consumption at the expense of some of the basics we need in order to function as a society: education, health and human services, and all means to provide care and safety for the public.
TO BE CONTINUED…..
http://www.mdr.de/mdr-info/8319911.html (Info in German only)
http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/npr.php?id=134340952 (Links to Scott Walker’s plan is also here)