Over the past month, campaign teams for the PSG (Partei für Soziale Gleicheit - Socialist Equality Party) have been gathering the thousands of signatures needed to place the party’s candidates on the ballot in Germany for elections to the European parliament. In Berlin and Leipzig, campaign teams spoke to workers and youth at job centers, shopping centers and universities, discussing the socialist and internationalist program of the PSG and the British SEP.
At job centers, workers frequently spoke about their careers, harassment from authorities, and the dissatisfying forms of work they have been compelled to take.
Jens is 52 years old and a trained welder who was visiting a job center in Leipzig. He has four children that have all left home. When he was unemployed, the job centre forced him under threat of sanctions to work at a temporary employment agency. There he worked in his trade but received only €8.93 per hour. By contrast, the employment agency took in €30 per hour. “Something justified at one time as a means to get the unemployed back to work has today become a way of exploiting specialized workers,” Jens commented.
Jens cannot find another job, because he has to comply with a one month notice period at the job agency. “They think they can do what they like,” Jens said. “They scoop up profits and I have to toil for them.”
Jürgen also spoke of being harassed by the job centre and of receiving completely unacceptable job offers. Since 2012 he has been dependent on welfare benefits. The job centre has reduced his benefit repeatedly. As a result, Jürgen receives just €57 per month, which is impossible to live on. He was furious as he left the job centre: “I wanted to lodge a written complaint against the cut and at the same time apply for food vouchers, but the centre worker refused to acknowledge my note.”
Jürgen's payments were cut because he stood up against the harassment of a job centre worker. She had compelled Jürgen to consider three jobs. In one he was expected to administer a website for a firm dealing in pornographic material.
The PSG/SEP’s opposition to the European Union (EU) met with broad agreement at job centers. The EU is seen as an instrument of the European ruling class to suppress opposition.
The teams rarely encountered the nationalism promoted by the recently founded Alternative for Germany. Although some workers justified their opposition to the EU because foreign cheap labour is coming to the country, workers welcomed a joint struggle by European workers. This contradiction shows that the problem is not anti-immigrant chauvinism, but rather confusion on how best to oppose the cheap labour policies promoted by the EU.
At a Berlin job centre Gino K. aged 40, said, “I am one of the so-called losers of the transition [from Stalinism in East Germany to capitalism] who grew up in East Berlin. Everything was fine in terms of school until reunification, then everything changed. At first I was euphoric, then came the disillusion. My parents’ household broke down due to job losses. My father lost his job at the main slaughter house, and my mother lost her job as a cook in a kindergarten. My father left the family. I went through a short period of criminality, got back on my feet, trained as a car mechanic and was able to work well in that trade for a while.
“Due to an injured hand, which was becoming increasingly weak, I could no longer be employed in all areas. For a long time, I was forced to take jobs paying €400 a month. Recently I worked in a supermarket, putting packages on conveyor belts.
“I have been unemployed for a year. It is an ordeal. It starts here in the job centre. The workers are changed every three months, and one doesn’t have a partner with whom to speak. Then everything has to be proven again, even though all of the evidence was there, everything has to be newly filled out. The offers are for cleaning jobs, which have nothing to do with my qualifications. And if I refuse to take something like that on, it means that I am not willing to work. Two jobs can be rejected, but the third job must be accepted.”
When asked about the EU, Gino said, “We, the small people, cannot survive in the EU. That can be seen with the low wages. Anyone can work here. It sounds odd, but I view that as negative for the future. As a result we are disadvantaged.”
When PSG supporters argued that German workers must unite with immigrants and workers throughout Europe, Gino responded, “Yes, that is right. That’s why what I said sounds strange… Today, we live in a two class system. Previously there was a middle class, today there are only rich and poor. I think that this has been deliberately brought about by the policies of the EU. It wasn’t like that before. I think that your campaign to bring European workers together in opposition to the social cuts is good.
Gino added, “I heard that a lot of people are starting at Penny [a cheap grocery store] because instead of €400 jobs there are proper contracts with earnings of around €1,000 a month. If you are healthy, you can maybe get by, but you can hardly live even then, paying for rent, children, taxes. Some have worked up to €1,200 and feel happy with that. Everything is more expensive now. And the certainty that I can learn a trade that I enjoy and that provides me the necessities to live, this doesn’t exist anymore.
“Conditions as in Greece are entirely possible here. We are being forced into a corner. A friend of mine said to me once that it won't be long until there is a civil war or a great war.”
Particularly in parts of the country that were formerly part of East Germany, the GDR (German Democratic Republic) was a central topic of discussion. There was hardly anyone who wanted to return to the GDR. However, many remembered or knew through their parents that in the GDR there was no unemployment, jobs were secure, and high-quality education was free.
In front of a Berlin job centre, Tina G explained that she saved every cent in spite of her poverty to be able to send her daughter to a private school, since the state-funded schools in Berlin are getting worse. She voted for the Left Party at the last election, but was repulsed by its election placard, “Revolution, no thanks.”
There were many contrasting responses at Humbolt University. Some students, most of whom appeared to come from better-off families, defended the EU. There were repeated discussions on the issue of whether, in spite of everything, the EU had not brought about something progressive. One student said he was relieved at the decline in unemployment in Germany, pointing to the official statistics, which underestimate real unemployment. Another defended German militarism.
However, many students were more reflective, expressing disgust at the social crisis in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and opposing militarism. They responded positively to the call by the PSG that the struggle against the EU could not be left to the right-wing.
Most discussions touched on the role of the Left Party. While some exposed support for the Left Party, many immediately agreed with the PSG’s characterization of its role as part of a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party in Berlin, where it has helped impose cuts.
Two young students in Slavic studies gave their signatures. One is originally from Poland, the other from Germany. Both had been abroad for six months: the Polish student in Warsaw, and the German in Moscow. The social inequality in both countries angered them, and they agreed that it was connected to the reintroduction of capitalism. Two social science students were concerned with the levels of social inequality and youth unemployment in Europe.
Several people said they were aware of the PSG and the World Socialist Web Site, either from the PSG’s federal election campaign or from reading the WSWS.