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East Germans Take to Streets, Angry over Layoffs, Bad Times

February 28, 1991

NEURUPPIN, Germany (AP) _ Nearly five months into unification, eastern Germans are abandoning hopes of quick prosperity and are taking to the streets by the thousands to vent their anger.

More than 40,000 east Germans staged warning strikes and blocked traffic Thursday from Berlin to Rostock - a day earlier 60,000 marched in Leipzig, Halle and Schwerin in some of the largest protests since the peaceful revolution against hard-line Communist leader Erich Honecker in autumn 1989.

Consumer goods abound, but houses are still crumbling, roads have sunk further into disrepair and factories are grinding to a halt. At least 4 million workers will be jobless by summer.

In some ways, Germans are more divided than ever, with health care collapsing and cities running out of money in the former Communist country. Over in the west, the wealthy economy rolls along.

″As rents, energy costs and utility bills rise, people are being pushed to a subsistence level,″ said Uwe Massberg, a mid-level manager at a factory in the former east German town of Neuruppin outside Berlin.

Massberg, 43, says the price hikes coupled with low wages and runaway unemployment have brought about the unrest in the east, a region of 16.6 million people. He and many others predict the protests will increase.

Angry workers have been holding daily vigils at the front gate of Massberg’s plant, the EPW works. Of approximately 2,500 employees, no more than 300 will have jobs as of July.

The sprawling, rundown electronic parts factory is filled with aging and outmoded machines. Even the 10 workers in one modernized division are threatened with layoffs.

For many eastern Germans, the rush to unification and the resulting headlong plunge into capitalism went too quickly.

″I wanted a reunited Germany, but not in the short period of time that it took,″ said Achibert Bauer, one of the union leaders at the EPW plant. ″Many people are very disappointed. We’ve now woken up.″

Bauer, 35, with three children and a wife, has already been put on ″short hours,″ a euphemism for little or no work at reduced pay.

He will be officially unemployed on July 1, an ominous date looming for eastern Germans because it marks the end of a legal ban on layoffs for a huge chunk of the work force.

About 400,000 to 500,000 eastern Germans will lose their jobs on that day alone, says the Unemployment League, an organization formed to protect the rights of the jobless.

That wave of layoffs will bring unemployment among former east Germany’s 9 million workers to 45 percent, according to estimates. Some say the number will be even higher.

After the layoffs, the average office worker or shop assistant will see his monthly income of $1,070 substantially cut to $690 in unemployment benefits.

Protests have become an almost daily occurrence in eastern Germany, as the number of those thrown out of fulltime work heads toward 3 million.

Fifty thousand workers and their supporters staged a wildcat walkout and marched in demonstrations in eight northern cities on February 20 to protest against an upcoming wave of layoffs in the maritime industries.

″These actions, when people take to the streets to show their fears and worries, won’t be lost on political decision-makers,″ says Manfred Gerlach, a worker at the imperiled Neptun shipbuilding yard in the Baltic coast city of Rostock.

The past two days of protests were mostly staged by workers seeking pay hikes and job security. Hundreds of parents and teachers also rallied in northern Schwerin, trying to save endangered day care centers.

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