You can take your Christmas Tree down now.

 

A few days ago, as I was preparing for my English classes at the university in Germany, I was listening to a morning talk show on a radio station based in Kansas City when the hosts brought up the subject of Christmas trees and when they should be taken down. Normally this would be a topic that is a no-brainer and should not be talked about on a radio station, for once the holiday season is over with, the decorations are put away, and the Valentine’s and spring decorations come out.  But after listening to what various people have to say, I have come to a conclusion that some of us need to get a life and look at the real events going on outside the world instead of worrying about what to do with the centerpiece of the day of giving and commemorating the Lord’s birth, the Christmas tree.  Some people leave their trees up until Valentine’s Day. Some leave the decorations on the tree but put the entire thing into its very own closet. And there are some who have the seasonal tree, where the trees receives different decorations when Valentine’s Day, Easter, Independence Day (4th of July), Halloween, Fall, and Thanksgiving come around!  When hearing about the different ways the tree is left up, it makes me wonder “What is the point of keeping up the tree at any cost, when all it does is take up space in the house in all the months of the year except the holiday season????”  Sometimes it makes me wonder whether we should have a tree up at all, as  there are other decorations and other things that make Christmas an enjoyable. In Germany,  we have other decorations that commemorate Christmas, like the candle pyramid (Dt.:  Pyramide), the lighted Christmas Arch (Lichterbogen) or even the incense men/houses. But here, we too have the Christmas tree and strangely enough, the concept originated from here as well. Yet we have a different way of treating our prized trees.

Normally,  the Christmas tree goes up on 23rd or 24th and remains there until after Epiphany (6th of January) when it comes down. It is much shorter than putting it up at Thanksgiving and taking it down in February, if some even do that. The reason for that is many Germans prefer the smell of a good old fashion natural Christmas tree, instead of the artificial tree made of plastic, which has the tendency of losing its needles as fast as the natural one.  In Bavaria, Baden Wurttemberg and Saxony Anhalt, the dismantling of the tree is a tradition on Epiphany, as it usually follows the carolers (consisting of three people) who go door to door to sing about the birth of Jesus Christ. It actually fits with the legend of the Three Wise Men who blessed the baby and provided Joseph and Mary with gifts of good tidings. This holiday basically concludes the holiday season and is the start of being back to business as usual and looking forward to spring, which is only two months away. That is, unless you are living in the northern hemisphere this year and experiencing the warmest winter on record with absolutely no snow on the ground, even though it is normal for this time of year.

I have no objection to the Christmas tree or the holiday season per se, as it is a time for family, relaxation, Christmas markets and other holiday events, and love. Yet for some reason, we seem to have lost the holiday’s true meaning this past season, with Black Friday taking place at midnight on Thanksgiving instead of at 9am the Friday after (and people planning their Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday instead of the Thursday it was provided for over 140 years), the obsession with the number of gifts a person should receive, and the stress of plowing through shopping malls and other venues just to see or buy anything they see. The Christmas tree debate is the last drop in an already full cup of coffee that has now spilled over.  The fortunate part about this holiday season is that we have another 11 months to reflect on what went wrong with the holiday season and plan ahead for the next one, with the hope that it will be more right than the last one.  However, as obsessive as we are with planning and consumption, I think we need to take a few steps back and walk into the wild we call reality, where we are dealt with the problems society is facing that we keep ignoring: environmental pollution, global warming, poverty and unemployment, crime and social pathologies, historic and natural places being destroyed by modernization and consumption, and our education system getting tanked in favor of profits.  I think if everyone can do something for the benefit of others, then we all can appreciate what we have and walk away from consumption at any cost. This includes being heavily influenced by the media and not being able to see things from our own perspective. It also includes being informed of the events happening in the world and learning a small bit of our world every day, gathering experience wherever it is needed, and feeling good about giving charity instead of taking all the time and not being happy at all.

Only then when we take a look at the wild side of life and contribute to the good will we learn to appreciate the true meaning of the holidays, and we can share our experiences with others come next Christmas. By then, we will not have to worry about when and where to decorate the Christmas tree let alone plan where we want to park at a shopping center on Black Friday just so we can obtain the gift of our wish. Maybe we will not to have to worry about presents at all, as the true meaning of Christmas is to share our love and ideas with others and having a great time, that is in front of a natural tree that is put up right before or on Christmas Eve.

50 Years of Genuine Traffic Lights in Eastern Germany

 

This year has been the year of the roaring zeros in the eastern part of Germany, as many universities, private firms and organizations in the former East German states of Mecklenburg-Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia are celebrating 20 years of existence and the nostalgia that had existed prior to the Revolution of 1989 managed to make its way to the main stream of German culture and international prominence; especially after 50 years.
Strangely enough, the pedestrian traffic lights in the eastern part of Germany happen to fall into the category of international prominence. 50 years ago this year, Karl Peglau of the Ministry of Transportation got a bit creative and tried to present the then German Democratic Republic with a mannequin figure, who stretched its arms out in red to alert the pedestrians to stop and waltzed across the street whistling his favorite tune in green, as seen in the photos taken below:

The Socialist Party eventually approved the introduction of the mannequin figure traffic light for the pedestrian crossings, and the first one was installed in Berlin in 1969 in the suburb of Mitte.  It became a ‘household product’ typical of East Germany afterwards as the drivers of the Trabant automobile (another East German product one can still see on the streets today but in fewer numbers) and pedestrians alike were awed by its appearance in the streets of Weimar, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Rostock, Potsdam, just to name a few.  Even more so is the fact that Peglau and later others did not stop there with their creative mannequin figure as it presented itself in many different forms; especially in green, which made it even more popular among the residents and visitors passing through the country- from the east, that is (the borders to the west were closed the same year Peglau invented the beloved mannequin figure).    Over the years, more than 30 different green mannequins appeared on the traffic lights ranging from a small girl carrying a Valentine’s heart to her sweetheart to a small child carrying a lantern at night to celebrate St. Martin’s Day (which is celebrated in November) or St. Nicholas carrying his bag full of toys to fill in the shoes of small children on St. Nicholas’ Day (which is celebrated on 6 December).  A gallery of examples the author photographed while in Erfurt in October of this year is provided below for the reader’s enjoyment:

 

The lady and the purse
St. Nicholas with his bag of toys for the children

 

Don't bike or walk unless signaled to do so!

While the mannequin was not popular in the western part of Germany and therefore not adopted after 1989, a person from Baden-Wurttemberg decided to market the beloved mannequin and today, one can buy a T-shirt with the  walking green mannequin figure on it, drink coffee in a cup with the red mannequin figure on it, or buy a poster with a drunken green mannequin on it as it tries for another bottle of beer (believe it or not, it exists.) But those are just to name a few.  It is highly doubtful the pedestrian traffic lights in western Germany or even the ones in the US would stand a match against the ones in eastern Germany and therefore be marketed in a way that people will buy them.

Typical western German traffic light with a bike signal. This is go....
....and this is the signal to stop!

But despite its popularity that exists in the eastern part of Germany and the fact that people elsewhere are embracing it through merchandise and photos, in the eyes of many people still (after 21 years), it is considered an “Ossie” product from the former Socialist regime, which stressed the importance of Marxism and Leninism and is therefore considered “evil.” More alarming is the fact that many people (even in the USA) believe that there are two Germanys still, even though they have been reunified for 21 years (3 October is the anniversary of the reunification of Germany and is declared a national holiday).  On the contrary though, despite our thinking of a “Wessie” (as the eastern Germans considered the westerners before and after 1989), many countries have embraced some of the products and structures that had existed before 1989. In particular, the Scandanavian countries  (Finland and Sweden) adopted the education system of the former East Germany because of its clear structure and learning levels that students can achieve in 13 years. Many countries still have government-owned health insurance and/or obliges the residents to have health insurance so that they do not have to worry about paying out of their pockets for the most important operations that can save their lives. And even in the western half of Germany, the people are embracing some of the TV programs that originate from the eastern part, like Sandman, the Fox and the Elster (a black and white bird found mostly in the eastern part), and other cartoon shows. During my trek to the Christmas markets last year in Nuremberg and Frankfurt (Main), one can see eastern German specialties there that are worth tasting, like the famous Thuringian bratwurst.


It is time that we crack open the books, travel to these regions, and put aside the differences that apparently still divides East and West and embrace the cultures of one another, perhaps even adopting them for the good of oneself and the rest of society.  Learning something new once a day will not harm the person but will make him/her more informative than before. This was the mentality that the late news anchor Peter Jennings took when he learned something new everyday and found ways of informing the public about it in his newscast World News Tonight, which he hosted for 23 years until he succumbed to cancer in 2006.  While the mannequin traffic light is the tiniest aspect that one would even dream of writing, it represents a fraction of the culture and history that is worth reading about, even if it came from the former East Germany. And with globalization dominating every aspect of life, one should embrace rather be inclusive, for learning about something every day will make a person more open to the world and wiser than the one who is ignorant.

OK, you can cross now- even by bike.

 

Link to the story (German): http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/Ampelmann100.html

Berlin Elections 2011: Turning Point in German Politics

The German-named “Superwahljahr 2011” (Super Elections of 2011- if one wants a rough translation) reached its climax on Sunday, as half of the 2.5 inhabitants of the city-state and Germany’s capital of Berlin went to the polls and voted to keep Klaus Wowereit (Social Democrat- SPD) in power as the mayor. His toughest challenge now is to find a new coalition partner that will help govern the city. His party’s coalition partner, the left-wing Linke Party was unable to obtain enough votes to continue the Red-Coalition and therefore, the Social Democrats have the option of having the Greens as a partner to form the common Red-Green coalition, which can be found in states like Rheinland Palatinate, Bremen  and Baden-Wurttemberg (the third state of which brought the state’s first Green prime minister to power). The other option would be to join the Christian Democrats (CDU) to form the Grand Coalition which has dominated the political scene in Germany in states like Mecklenburg Pommerania, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt. Talks began Monday and speculation points to the Red-Green coalition although some issues have to be resolved first in order to ensure that continuity and transparency exists. One of the issues on the table is the extension of the city-autobahn 110 through the southern and easter end of Berlin’s city center The Greens are against the proposal, the SPD are for it.
As for the voting results, the SPD remained a powerful party with 28.5% of the votes, followed by the CDU with 23.4%, the Greens with 17.6%, the Linke with 11.7%, the Pirates Party, a newcomer to the elections with 8.9% and the FDP with 1.8%. The new make-up in the Berlin city senate will consist of 47 seats for the SPD, 39 for the CDU, 29 for the Greens, 19 for the Linke, and 15 for the Pirates.  A pair of notes to point out from the Berlin elections:

 

The end of the FDP?
After recording five losses in a row and losing its presence in the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Pommerania, Rheinland-Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg, the liberal democrats once again failed to reach the 5% hurdle to stay in parliament in Berlin. As a consequence, talks are underway in the German government and within the FDP regarding the party’s future. The party has been marred with scandals this past year (including that involving plagiarism), and the miserable results have led to the resignation of Guido Westerwelle as the head of the party in May. While Philip Röseler, currently Minister of Finance has taken over his place, he has come under fierce fire from his counterparts of the CDU for the party’s lack of direction and the resulting poor performance. With the FDP losing influence, it could spell doom for the Dream Coalition of the CDU-FDP under the direction of Chancellor Angela, who may have to consider early elections in order to find a more suitable coalition partner to lead the country. German elections will take place in 2013 unless early elections push it up to next year, the second time in 7 years that has happened.  Should that be the case and the losses continue to mount, the FDP may disappear from the political landscape within five years, and with it, its campaign for free markets and less regulations.

What is the Pirate Party?
Founded in 2005 and headed by Sebastian Nerz, the Pirate Party has raised some eyebrows among Germans, after it made the 5% hurdle and will make its debut in Berlin’s city parliament. The Pirate Party is the most independent of the common parties serving the country for its campaign platform is simple but down to earth; especially for the younger generations born after 1975. Most of the themes covered during the elections are those that were not discussed thoroughly among the common parties (the main ones dominating the German political landscape). This includes unlimited access to public transportation in Berlin, loosening up of copyright regulations, free internet access for all, improving basic rights among Berliners, and more importantly, reforming the government so that they are transparent and there are no loose ends in the regulations.  These topics have been a major agenda for the party for they feel that they have not been discussed in detail by the government. This is especially true with basic rights, as Nerz mentioned in an interview that some of the laws requiring surveillance and reducing the rights of citizens were not thought through thoroughly nor discussed with the public. Whether the party will be successful or not depends on how Nerz and company will push through their agenda when they enter the city hall for the first time. They have five years to show their true colors and perhaps win the hearts and minds of those who never thought they would take that step.

FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACT:  There are 29 countries that have their own Pirate Party. In Germany alone, apart from having one serving the country, two state pirate parties serve the states of Hesse and Bavaria. In the United States, while there is no official party serving the country, there are two state Pirate parties that exist in Massachusetts and Florida. An international Pirate Party was founded in Brussels, Belgium last year.

 

Links:

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15399521,00.html

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15397392,00.html

http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/nerz102.html

http://www.mdr.de/mdr-info/wahlberlin102_zc-885afaa7_zs-5d851339.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_Parties_International#Pirate_Party_movement_worldwide

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Democratic_Party_%28Germany%29

Green Invasion at the Expense of the Liberals

"Huh? What's that I hear?" Photo taken in December 2010

Politics is like going through a natural cycle: You have two main parties where one party takes over the podium because of a concept that makes sense, only to find that it does not make sense to the public. In the end that party is replaced with the other one- its opposition- because it has a better idea. However it does not please the public, so it is removed in favor of the party they had unseated previously. This badminton match which includes all the grunts, ranting and raving, and political trash talking, continues until another party comes to bring down the political forum with a digger and bulldozer. When this happens, everybody knows about it and runs for cover- even the deer are affected as they are the most sensitive to change and noise and run when they feel change is inevitable.

It is unclear what to make of the recent state elections in Germany, where the Dream Coalition- the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Free Liberals (FDP)- are losing support as rapidly as one loses sand through his own fingers. After being routed in Hamburg on 20th February, failing to overtake the Social Democrats in Rheinland Palatinate, being forced to form the Grand Coalition with its rival party the SPD after losing the majority in Saxony-Anhalt, and being unseated as the majority party of Baden Württemberg after 60 years in power (the last three elections being on 27 March), change is becoming more and more inevitable as a long 2 years is ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel for two reasons:

1. She lost her right hand politician and potential successor to the throne, Guido Westerwelle on Monday, as he announced that he was stepping down as the head of the FDP after 10 years in power and was not going to step in for Angela Merkel effective immediately. While he will continue on as foreign minister until the next elections in 2013, the opposition and members of his own party are pushing that he resigns from that post as well and leave politics after the poorest showing in the state elections in its history, where the party did not even make the 5% mark in Saxony-Anhalt and Rheinland Palatinate and barely made it over the mark in Baden Württenberg, making him as the scapegoat. While health minister Philipp Rösner, who is of Vietnamese origin and one of the youngest ministers in the German Bundestag, is poised to take over Westerwelle’s duties, a power struggle is inevitable as the Liberals are struggling to find an identity which would be appealing to the voters. This is sensible given the fact that almost two years ago, the party had 11% of the votes in the federal elections, which was enough for the Dream Coalition with the CDU. Before that it was averaging 8-10% of the votes in the state elections.

2. There is a new party that is taking the spotlight away from the two majority parties, the SPD and the CDU, in the form of the Greens. When Winfried Kretschmann takes over as Prime Minister of Baden Württemberg, he will become the first Green Party member to be elected to this post, let alone the first Green to hold a major post since Joschka Fischer was Foreign Minister and Gerhardt Schröder’s vice Chancellor during the years of the Red Green Coalition in Berlin (1998-2005). How Kretschmann, who originates from Sigmarigen near Lake Constance and the co-founder of the Greens in his homestate claimed his post is simple: In the state elections, even though the CDU was able to obtain the majority of the votes with 39%, the Greens got 24.1% of the votes and the SPD got 23.2%. The FDP only got 5.3%. As a result, the SPD and Greens created the Red Green Coalition, making it the majority ruling party. As a general rule, the party with the majority votes in the coalition also nominates the candidate to run the state, which was the Green candidate Kretschmann. While he may not be the next Jesse Ventura ( the professional wrestler who won the governatorial elections inMinnesota as an Independent Party candidate in 1998 and held that post for 4 years), he is the symbol of what could be the Green Revolution, as the party has become clear winners in the state elections thusfar, winning an average of 8% of the parliamentary seats in the four states, a gain of 7%. This includes a 15% gain in Baden Württemberg, 10.8% in Rheinland Palatinate, 3.6% in Saxony Anhalt, and 1.6% in Hamburg. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the parties where they have been losing seats and votes in the last decade, with the FDP taking the brunt of the losses. The reasons for the trend is two fold. First and foremost, in light of the triple disaster in Japan- consisting of the Earthquake, Tsunami which completely obliterated everything in its path in the northeast part of the country, and the Nuclear Disaster at Fukushima which is on the level with Chernobyl in 1986- the party is pushing for the complete phasing out of nuclear power and 100% reliance of renewable energy by 2040. This includes phasing out all nuclear power plants one by one, something that the CDU and FDP have been opposed to even after the disaster in Japan, which has angered many people in Germany and elsewhere. Secondly it wants to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emmissions by 40% to 1990 levels by 2020, by introducing strict policies to encourage more electric and fuel-efficient cars and introducing other incentives to conserve energy. These are the main reasons to go along with other policies they have involving agriculture and family policies, something that many people are dissatisfied with the current trend by the Dream Coalition.

With three more state elections on the horizon (Berlin, Bremen, and Mecklenburg-Pommerania), the trend is pointing clearly towards the Greens, as the party looks at creating another Red-Green Coalition in Berlin and Bremen with the possibility of having another Green mayor in Bremen and Berlin, which would make history as the first city-states to do that. While the Greens have the votes to do that in Bremen, Berlin is banking on Renate Kunast, a former Agriculture Minister during the Schröder days who is now the minister of nutrition and diet, to pull off the unthinkable, like in Baden Württemberg. As for the Greens in Mecklenburg-Pommerania, the northeasternmost state in Germany, the party is looking at clearing the 5% barrier for the first time in a decade, while finding ways to squelch the most hated Nationalist Party (NPD) in the process. The party had only 3.6% in the last elections of 2006 in comparison to the 7.1% the NPD had.

As for the FDP, they are being looked upon as guidance to help the Grand Coalition through the most difficult times. While Westerwelle is no loner leading the party and may even leave politics, even with a new party leader, some fundamental changes need to take place in order for it to become a credible party. Should it fail to find a platform to attract the voters, there is a danger that the party may lose more than just its identity. It is possible that the FDP may bring down the CDU, thus marking the elections of 2013 as a watershed for the Coalition, as the campaigns of Merkel and company many fall on deaf ears of voters who demand change in the form of a new government, new policies, and a term that is rarely heard of these days in the world of politics, a new set of ethics; especially in light of what happened in Japan with Fukushima and its implications on the energy and environmental policies, touted as one of the best in the modern world, thanks to contributions by the Greens.

Useful Links:

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,14950846,00.html

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,14963869,00.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamburg_state_election,_2011

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxony-Anhalt_state_election,_2011

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhineland-Palatinate_state_election,_2011

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baden-W%C3%BCrttemberg_state_election,_2011

Striving for high quality and excellence in education: The Frauentag Demonstrations in eastern Germany


Erfurt City Hall: The Starting Point for the Demonstrations

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.

Soziale Schieflage (Social Inequality)
Flowers in their honor- Happy Frauentag, Ladies.

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.

The writing is on the sidewalk.

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.

The percussion leading the way....

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.  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.  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.

Crossing the City Hall Bridge enroute to the Staatskanzlei

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.

Thuringian Staatskanzlei
The demonstrators listen as the union leaders speak

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 Möllring 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 Möllring 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.  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.  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…..

Links:

http://www.mdr.de/mdr-info/8319911.html (Info in German only)

http://www.thueringer-allgemeine.de/startseite/detail/-/specific/Lehrer-demonstrieren-in-Erfurt-Bessere-Bezahlung-gefordert-1076764199 (Video clip)

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/npr.php?id=134340952 (Links to Scott Walker’s plan is also here)