The biggest crowds gathered in Berlin. But even there, the 20,000 marching under union banners were eclipsed by the groups of left- and right-wing radicals who battled with police in working-class districts. After a night of rioting, some 4,500 police armed with water cannon and tear gas struggled all day to restore order.
With unemployment at a post-war high and the government poised to embark on a severe austerity programme, union bosses had hoped for a heavy turn-out. Talks with the government and the employers broke down last week after Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced a package of welfare cuts and measures to loosen the labour market, which the unions say amount to an "employers' charter".
But on yesterday's evidence, union bosses' fury with Mr Kohl and threats to mobilise workers appear to have found only a faint echo among their members. In Dortmund, at the heart of the Ruhr, a mere 5,000 gathered to hear the movement's most charismatic leader, Klaus Zwickel, head of the mighty IG-Metall.
A chorus of miners warmed up the crowd with a jazzed-up rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". Mr Zwickel donned a cloth cap for the occasion and came armed with ferocious rhetoric. "We will not hesitate for one moment to resort to all means available to the union struggle," he thundered.
"We will not let the rights of the weak be wiped out. The time for talking is over, the time for action has arrived," he went on. The audience murmured its approval as representatives of the toiling masses of the Middle East loudly advertised their disparate causes.
Mr Zwickel, with a membership of nearly 3 million in the engineering sector, had just carried out the third U-turn of his career.
Last year he extracted a hefty pay rise for his members after a crippling strike, only to become a force of reason in the union movement. But his "Alliance for Jobs," a pact with employers and the government that proposed to freeze wages in exchange for a pledge to create more jobs, has been torn to shreds by Mr Kohl.
The Chancellor's own "Programme for Growth and Employment" seems designed to galvanise industry by cutting the cost of labour and making it easier to hire - and fire - workers.
As a result, Mr Zwickel and the other union leaders are back on the warpath, threatening to unleash a wave of strikes in the summer.
"This savings package is not a programme for growth and employment. It is a programme of social heartlessness," said Dieter Schulte, head of the Trade Union Federation, in Berlin. "We will resist it as hard as we can," he pledged.
From his point of view, the omens do not look good. Economic uncertainty and the torrent of worsening employment statistics has beaten many workers into submission. That is the message coming from the Ruhr, Berlin, and even Bremen, where thousands lost their jobs yesterday as the country's largest shipbuilder, Bremer Vulkan, went into liquidation.
The Baltic port, where the unemployment rate will now rise above 20 per cent, was to have been the focus of resistance to the government. But Bremen's workers and its freshly unemployed also stayed at home yesterday, evidently deciding that the unions were rattling their sabres in defence of a lost cause.