Austria: Change the policy, not the faces

The grand coalition in Austria has fallen apart, the two main parties of Austria, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives came under the opposing pressures of the bosses and the working class. In the ranks of the labour movement a militant mood is developing. The long established relative social peace is at an end as the Austrian workers prepare to join their brothers and sisters across Europe in a fightback against the bosses onslaught.

Times are changing. And as a result of the growing political, economic and social instability on a world scale they are changing very fast at the moment. One week ago I started an article about the political situation in Austria, and as I was writing it was already getting out of date. Austria, in the past often described as the "isle of the blissful" because of its relatively stable economic and political development after the Second World War, is now entering its worst political crisis in the history of the second republic. Last week I wanted to comment on the replacement of Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer as chairman of the Social Democrats by Werner Faymann and the possibility of new elections. But now the motion in parliament for new elections has already been approved.

What happened?

The ÖVP [the Austrian conservatives] and former chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel lost the last elections in 2006. The conservatives were punished by the people for the pensions "reform", the dismantling of the education system and privatisations. The Social Democrats actually won the elections, but were far from winning any new ground. They more or less held on to their voters. Therefore the only arithmetical solution to this stalemate election result was a "grand coalition".

Alfred Gusenbauer
Alfred Gusenbauer

We, the Marxists, knew what this would mean under this particular balance of class forces: a complete selling off of the interests of the working class and a subordination of the SPÖ leadership to the bourgeois. The Marxists of Der Funke at that time, far from considering this result solely from an arithmetical point of view, but from a class position, put forward the slogan of a "SPÖ minority government", with the aim of using the free play of forces in parliament to carry out the fundamental demands in the party's election manifesto, for example the abolition of the university fees, for which there would be a majority in parliament. But at the same time this had to be combined with extra-parliamentary action of the working class, such as mass demonstrations and strikes, in order to defend the interests of the working class against the resistance of the bourgeoisie. At this time also the Young Socialists [the youth wing of the SPÖ], under the influence of the Marxists, took up the slogan of a minority government, which also had an echo in the rank and file of the party.

But the leadership of the party entered a coalition with the conservatives, thus betraying their electorate, party activists and the trade union movement, while Gusenbauer could fulfil his "childhood dream" of being chancellor. Right from the very beginning they betrayed all their pre-election promises. The demand to abolish university fees was abandoned, as was the promise not to buy the "Eurofighter" war planes called produced by EADS, which was a commitment of the previous bourgeois government.

As if this were not enough, they conceded all the key ministerial positions, including the most powerful one, the Ministry of Finance, to the ÖVP. But at least Gusenbauer had become chancellor, even if this was at the price of entering into a coalition with a party that still has a picture of the former dictator Dollfuss hanging in their office in the parliament!

The price they have paid for all these policy concessions has been a high one. On every important question the Social Democrats have retreated and bowed down before their bourgeois counterparts. One of the main questions that contributed to the 2006 election victory, the issue of care for the elderly, was not tackled. 800,000 pensioners, who already get less than the minimum pension, got a 1.7% increase, which is well below the inflation rate of 3.7% (January 2007). So in actual real terms they got a 2% cut.

While the profits of the big companies are skyrocketing, half a million Austrians are living below the poverty line (out of a population of 8 million!), most of them women and children. The extension of opening hours of shops is a further blow for working women, who have to take care of children.

The repressive policy of the former government to extend state surveillance methods was continued, and it is now possible to intercept telephone conversations, to locate the position of a mobile phone and to check the internet behaviour of each citizen without the need to seek court approval.

For the first time since 1945 formally "neutral" Austria has sent troops to a combat zone into the Sahara. Under the excuse of protecting refugee camps in Chad, Austria, alongside France, is siding with the dictator Deby in a dirty war for oil between Chad and Sudan. A race for the opening up of oilfields is taking place in that region between the EU, China and the USA, pushing these countries into misery and barbarism. All this is taking place under the banner of "humanitarian mission" and "neutrality". And the "red" Minister of Defence expressed big concerns about whether the Austrian army was prepared for such a mission.

One setback followed another, and the Social Democrats became more and more discredited among the wider population. Their final demise would have been sealed, had it not been for bungling on the part of the ÖVP ministers. Sections of the Interior Ministry (Homer Office) were abused by the ÖVP. Their aim was to "expose" the SPÖ before the elections, so different SPÖ politicians were spied on. As this leaked out, the "Austrian Watergate scandal" was born.

Wolfgang Schüssel
Wolfgang Schüssel

At this point the alarm bells should have started ringing. Had the SPÖ leaders had a gram of understanding, this would have been the time to break the coalition. But the Social Democratic leaders were living in a world of their own. Although all nine regional party structures, which are more exposed to the pressure of the rank and file, had been against the line of the national leadership on different questions, Gusenbauer remained very optimistic, smiling with a glass of champagne into the cameras of the high society media, oblivious to what was actually brewing down below, with his popularity ratings already falling to 30%. Schüssel was rubbing his hands as the process of self-destruction of the Social Democracy in the hands of the leadership forged ahead.

Meanwhile, the pressure of the rank and file via their regional organisations and the FSG [the Social Democratic trade unionists] increased. Cuts in pensions, the lack of a solution to the care for the elderly issue, the mission in Chad, the political strangulation of the SPÖ on the part of the ÖVP and permanent rumours about new elections required a break in the situation. The leadership made a 180° turn and they brought forward the tax reform to 2009, which was one of the most important demands of the trade unions. They started talking about easing the burden on the average earner and increasing taxation on shareholders and top earners.

The leadership began to panic as they desperately tried to avoid losing their last remnants of support. This bending to the pressures of the trade unions reveals that the party has not at all been "decoupled" from the trade unions. How else can one explain the fact that Gusenbauer after behaving over the last year like a copy of Tony Blair was suddenly raising the programme of the Social Democratic trade unionists? However, it is also true to say that the trade union leaders were not much better. They were doing their utmost to avoid strike waves like those we have seen in the rest of Europe.

Electoral setback

The first big test for the SPÖ was in the regional elections in Lower Austria in March of this year. This is a typical stronghold of the ÖVP. In such an environment it would have been easy, with a programme of opposition and one that defended the interests of the working class, to gain ground. But instead of this the regional party leader, Heidemaria Onodi presented herself in the election campaign as a "constructive partner" of the ÖVP. Under normal circumstances she could have maintained the usual votes. But although the turnout was higher than in the previous elections, the Social Democrats lost 50,000 votes, and in former strongholds they lost 7.9% more than in other parts of the country. That was clearly a punishment of the political line of the national leadership.

Easter Compromise

Over Easter Gusenbauer and the ÖVP leadership made a compromise on the question of the tax reform. A few weeks ago Gusenbauer was demanding the tax reform be brought forward, which itself nearly escalated the crisis of the government. This was of course his last chance to boost his profile. The "Easter compromise" provided easing the burden on low earners and the bringing forward of the next pension increase. But the tax reform, the hope of many workers for a tax relief, is to be delayed until 2010. The bringing forward of the pension increase is a positive step, but only a drop in the ocean. Once again the SPÖ gave in because of the resistance of the ÖVP.

There was also the announcement of a "capital gains tax", which raised waves of excitement on behalf of the SPÖ leadership. But the ÖVP quickly made clear what it really meant. It should only be implemented after they had carried out enough cuts in the health system. Thus the role of the SPÖ was to kindly assist the bourgeois in starving the health system of finance and help prepare it for privatisation, which is the actual plan behind all this. Meanwhile the "capital gains tax" may never see the light of day, because the fear of a flight of capital is too high.

The right-wing leadership was clearly satisfied with this compromise but kept this within the leading bodies of the SPÖ. However, even on the party executive there were some who voted against. Different regional organisations criticised the proposals and demanded renegotiation of the tax reform. Gusenbauer gained a bit of time, but without fundamentally changing the situation.

The next attack wasn't long in coming, and resulted in the so called "automatic pension mechanism". What this means is that there will be further cuts in the pension system if average life expectancy goes up by 6 month or if the total amount paid out in pensions is more than the total contributions paid into the system. This would mean an increase of the retirement age or an increase in contributions. This is the worst "reform" of the pension system ever.


The reform of the health care system would mean a subordination of health care to the profit motive, a decrease in benefits and a closing down of medical facilities. This plan was developed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Trade Union, which again shows what "social partnership" really means these days. Thousands of doctors went on strike for several days and came out in their thousands on demonstrations, a development which has never been seen before in Austria. Also different trade unionists and members of the unions' National Council openly criticised the reform, organised a campaign of protest emails to the Chairman of the trade unions and demanded an extraordinary congress of the ÖBG to discuss the reform [ÖGB is the Austrian general confederation of trade unions]. This kind of resistance inside the trade unions hadn't been seen since 1950.

Workers blockading factory gates in Lenzing

Another trade union struggle over a collective bargaining contract in the chemical industry was going on. The union was demanding a 4% wage increase, which is quite moderate if you consider the rapid rise in prices for food, fuel and energy. But even that was considered too "extreme" for the bosses. In actual fact, 4% wouldn't even cover the rate of inflation and in real terms would mean a wage cut. The scandal is that the Austrian chemical industry had a very profitable year in 2007. But the workers are not allowed to have a share. At the end of April negotiations broke down, because the employers didn't want to offer more than 3.3%. The workers responded by organising a conference of shop stewards and workers and trade unionists blockaded the factory gates of two factories. At one of these, in Lenzing, 900 workers took part in the picket.

The picture for postal workers is no different. Management plans to close down several post offices, outsourcing, with a reduction in the number of workers and a cut in wages. At a works meeting in one office 90% of the workers were against cuts. Supporters of the Marxist tendency Der Funke had presented a resolution proposing a strike action in several committees of the Postal Workers Union, as a way of stopping the bosses in their tracks. The resolution was very well received by the workers.

Everywhere where industrial conflicts are breaking out, workers are talking about strike action: in social services, electricity power generating companies, in hospitals...  The mood is a militant one. In most of these sectors the SPÖ comes across as the direct enemy of the workers. But the trade union leaders are trying to calm the situation down. They want to prevent a wave of strikes like those in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France, Britain, Greece and the rest of Europe. If any worker asks why this is, the answer they get is "Social partnership! Social partnership!"

Another electoral setback

The next electoral setback came in the regional elections in the Tyrol, a region that lives off tourism. The cost of living is high and the income is low. The Tyrol is already feeling the effects of the international economic crisis. Swarovski cut 450 jobs in Wattens, and the textile producer Geiger also cut jobs massively. Both companies depend very much on exports to the USA. The power supply company TIWAG is also not in a good shape because of the unstable financial situation in the USA.

Workers blockading factory gates in Lenzing

This economic situation in the region was what prepared the election results. The Tyrol has always been an ÖVP stronghold. But in the elections of early June the ÖVP lost 10%, and for the first time they lost their absolute majority. However, even more disastrous was the result of the SPÖ. The party only received 15% of the votes. Once again they had been the junior partner in the regional government over the last few years. They did not dare to criticise the ÖVP, and for this nobody took them seriously anymore. What the SPÖ dare not do, the former president of the Tyrolean Chamber of Labour and member of the ÖVP, Fritz Dinkhauser, did. He stood on his own independent list and criticised the conditions in the region and demanded a "fair Tyrol". He spoke out openly what a lot of people were thinking and received 18% of the votes. He is anything but a leftist, but he raised his voice against the people in high places, something that should be the task of the Social Democrats, but they prefer to hide behind the bourgeois.


In order to escape protest from his own ranks Gusenbauer stepped down as chairman of the Social Democrats. His successor was Werner Faymann, until now not a very well known figure. His biggest success in the recent government was the abolition of the obligation for cars to have their lights on during the day! He was presented in the media as the most popular Social Democrat, because first of all nobody really had known him until now and secondly the most influential newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, presented him in that manner.  It goes without saying that he has nurtured friendly relations with the boss of this newspaper, Hans Dichand. He was the last credible candidate of the SPÖ leadership to prove to the ÖVP that they were serious in their cooperation in the government.

Although he is presented to the public as the most prominent politician, nobody in the party likes him. That is because in the party the ranks know what he stands for. He often sided with the ÖVP on different questions. It is actually quite scandalous that such an individual should be made chairman of the Social Democratic Party. This exposes once more the undemocratic methods used inside the party.

Sudden swing in the EU-policy

The leadership became more nervous, and in order to save the last remnants of support they had they came up with another idea: a referendum on the EU Treaty. Unfortunately for them, for the Lisbon Treaty it's already a bit too late, because the Austrian parliament has already ratified it. So the SPÖ leaders have come up with the brilliant idea that they will call for a referendum, if a revised form of the Treaty has to be ratified from Austria. A very vague demand indeed! It was only a short while ago, after the Lisbon Treaty had been rejected by a majority of the Irish people, that former chancellor Gusenbauer was saying that the Irish vote should be repeated... Gusenbauer and his followers had been loyal "Europeans" until recently. So what was this change of policy all about?

Workers blockading factory gates in Lenzing

Every important bourgeois project since the birth of the Second Republic had to have the more or less active support of the Social Democratic Party, as for example in the joining of the European Union in 1995. The big majority for a "yes" vote in that referendum was due to a large degree to the support of the SPÖ and the trade union leaders, who stood loyally behind this central project of Austrian capital. It was always clear to the Austrian bosses that as a general rule the SPÖ was not the best of partners because of its links to the trade unions and the workers' movement, but on this question they had proved a better partner than the Freedom Party and their "Austria first" patriotism.

The rank and file of the Social Democratic Party was never really enthusiastic about the EU. The sharpening social contradictions in Austria had always been connected to the joining of the EU. But this scepticism about the EU was in truth an expression of discontent about the social situation in Austria, the rising poverty and insecurity about the future. The Social Democratic and trade union leadership are to blame for the fact that the people in general never understood the real nature of the EU as a "Europe of Capital", and therefore the real reason for the rising social differentiation.

With the recent call for a referendum of a (possible) revised EU treaty the party leadership wanted to open a channel through which resentment could find an expression. Gusenbauer and Faymann were still reassuring the bosses that they were sticking to a pro-EU line, but they simply wanted to "restore trust in this big project of European unification". Thus they are forced to perform a balancing act between the people and the capitalists who demand an uncompromising "yes" of the SPÖ leadership towards the EU. Because of this the leadership finds itself in an irresolvable contradiction. The ÖVP answered this sudden swing in policy with shouting that it was a "catastrophe". The SPÖ has once again exposed itself as "unqualified able to govern".

New elections

This week the ÖVP announced the end of the coalition, and a motion in parliament for  new elections in September has already been approved. The plan of the ÖVP leadership from the very beginning of this coalition was to expose and gradually weaken the Social Democracy, something which they have succeeded in doing quicker than they thought. The sudden swing of Faymann on EU policy was the long-desired moment they were looking for to break the coalition. With the announcement of new elections to end the "coalition misery" the bourgeois are trying to take the reins in their own hands, and control the direction and speed of the process.

The SPÖ reacted quickly and now Gusenbauer will not be the top candidate for the next elections. We cab be assured that some lucrative job offers from notable international companies are already waiting for him and he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Viktor Klima, or the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who are making good money at the moment in their new careers.

The policy of Faymann of course will not be any different, if anything maybe worse, because he was always the best friend of the ÖVP. Under his leadership leftists and critical shop stewards will find the atmosphere more stifling. The slogan the SPÖ leadership will now try to rally round is "close ranks, no criticisms anymore, because now it's important to stand up for the fatherland and the party". They will try to remove the organic links to the labour movement, in order to be a more reliable partner for the bourgeois.

But actually this is the key point. The real reason for the crisis inside the party and the government is not due to any inability explain the policy, as is often stated. It's the policy of the leadership itself that is at fault! The issue cannot be solved if you simply change the faces. There is insuperable gap between the bourgeois policy of the SPÖ leadership and the social interests of the rank and file and the reality in the factories and the working class neighbourhoods. This is the explanation for the current decline of "New Labour", the SPD and now of the SPÖ.

The bourgeois will now go onto the offensive. They now have a much easier position, presenting themselves as the only guarantor of stability. But if they win the elections ‑ the most likely scenario at the moment - there will be further pension cuts, "reform" of the health care system, a pro-EU line, and a harsh policy on immigration. For left socialists it must be clear: if we want to avoid this and if we want to bring about a left turn in society, this is only possible if we fight against the policy of the Social Democratic leadership. This will lead to harsh conflicts, but there is no alternative for leftists inside the SPÖ and the trade unions. In the last few days there has been some talk of an attempt to establish an Austrian left party. But the leading actors of this project do not really have an anchoring in the working class. The reorganisation of the labour movement will take place in the Social Democracy and the trade unions, and these conflicts will not be solved tomorrow, they will play out over a long period. But if we really want a change it's necessary to fight for it now.

Build a left inside the SPÖ and the trade unions

The pendulum of the most advanced layers of the working class is swinging to the left, as we can see with the developing protests in different sectors of society, with demonstration and strikes. At the same time, to an extent, frustration is increasing. A continuation of the bourgeois policy of the SPÖ leadership and their idea of social partnership will intensify this process further. The accumulated pressure has to find an expression. A lot of rank and file comrades do want another policy. It is now time to bring together all the honest and militant rank and file comrades to form a left inside the SPÖ and the trade unions. And we need a perspective, a programme and a method to defend our living standards, something Faymann cannot offer. We have to think for ourselves and act for ourselves. We have to propose a programme which really defends the interests of the working class and the youth:

  • Redistribution of the wealth from top to bottom

  • No to privatisations!

  • For the re-nationalisation of what has been privatised for the profit of a few capitalists, and for public ownership under democratic workers' control and management of the pension and health systems, transport, telecommunications, the production and distribution of energy, banking, insurance and credit, and of all the major industries.

  • For a social offensive: Cut the working week to 30 hours with no loss in pay! Abolition of university fees! Improve the education, health care and elderly care systems! Life must be affordable again!

  • For a sliding scale of wages to defend our living standards!

  • No coalition with bourgeois parties!

We also have to reject the idea of "social partnership", which today means the complete subordination of the interests of working people to those of the bourgeoisie. The battle will also shift more and more to the economic level. In the face of price rises shop stewards have to push the trade unions to fight for real wage increases in this autumn's wage negotiations. If we want to prevent further price rises and a cut in real wages, we have to coordinate and strengthen the first attempts of shop stewards and workers to actively intervene in wage negotiations.

The first step in the formation of a left already took place at the beginning of May with a conference of a "SPÖ-left". 50 comrades of the Young Socialists and the SPÖ of 3 regions responded to the appeal of the Marxist tendency Der Funke to organise resistance against the party leadership and the grand coalition. A resolution on how to build such a left and what programme it should be based on, was discussed and voted on. But this was only the beginning. In the second half of this year another bigger conference will take place, for which there will be mobilisations from all over Austria. This should be the real starting point in the formation of the "SPÖ-left".

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