New government in Austria begins by clashing with the labour movement

The Austrian labour movement and Social Democratic Party have been rocked by a scandal. After months of promises, the SPÖ jettisoned its central election promises in order to join a coalition government with the bourgeois People's Party. The betrayal of the leadership of the party has become the focal point in the formation of a left opposition within the party.

On Monday, January 8 at 1:30pm, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), Alfred Gusenbauer announced that the negotiations between the SPÖ and the People's Party (ÖVP, main bourgeois party) had led to an agreement. Immediately after the press conference had ended, the whole party and especially its youth organisations were left in a state of shock. Why? The only people in the Austrian labour movement that will gain from this newly formed government are Gusenbauer and the small clique around him. With this coalition agreement, they betrayed millions of voters and the party activists, who sacrificed hours and hours in the streets, workplaces and universities to secure an election victory for the SPÖ. One of the main points of the betrayal, as seen by the party rank-and-file is as follows:

Gusenbauer and his collaborators did not succeed in cancelling university fees. One may wonder how this - in and of itself a minor question - can become the focal point of an uprising in the party. The answer lies in the history of Austrian politics over the last 6 years and in the election campaign of the SPÖ itself. When the hated bourgeois coalition government of Schüssel and Haider came to power in 2000 they immediately introduced a whole series of anti-working-class-policies, robbing the workers and youth of approximately 7 billion euros per year. All this was accepted by the SPÖ and trade union leaders in the end (only when Schüssel introduced reforms to the pension system in 2003, a general movement of mobilisations and strikes could not be prevented by the TU tops). It was only the students in the universities that really fought the government through a series of strikes against the introduction of university fees in 2000/2001. Pressure then went up so high that even some of the unions had to back the students and send delegations to their demonstrations. Of course, this was no accident. Free access to the university system was widely seen as a historical conquest of the Austrian labour movement in the 1970s. However, the bourgeois government defeated the university students and the removal of the university fees became a central slogan of the SPÖ. In the election campaign of 2006, the leadership of the SPÖ did not put forward a progressive, let alone socialist programme. But they promised a few basic things. One of them became a centrepiece of the victory of the SPÖ. They said, "If the SPÖ is to become a part of the government, university fees will be cancelled. Otherwise the SPÖ will not take part in the government." Der Funke, the Austrian Marxist Tendency, replied, "We are very happy with this announcement. But we tell you in advance: a coalition government with a bourgeois party will, under today's balance of class forces, mean that the policies of the bourgeoisie will be maintained fully. Therefore, the only choice before you to implement these promises is a government of the SPÖ." The logic of this statement was put forward very well and the Young Socialists organisation, under the influence of the Marxists, also understood its significance. After the elections the YS came out with a call for a SPÖ-government. Now the superiority of Marxism as the science of perspectives is shown in practice. The SPÖ leaders have explained, "It was not possible to form a coalition with the ÖVP if we stood firm on this issue of university fees. Therefore, we had to give it up." In the first place, they tried to disguise this behind a smoke-screen of legal niceties (i.e., one does not have to pay fees in exchange for 60 hours of social work a semester, calculating for a hourly wage of 6,05 €. This wage is well below the wage as agreed in the collective bargaining agreement for workers in this sector and below the wage of every "normal" student job, like leafleting or restaurant workers).

This cynicism aroused the anger of the students immediately. On Monday at 3:00pm (one and a half hours after the beginning of the press conference of Gusenbauer) a demonstration was organised, led by the SPÖ student organisation, the VSStÖ, in front of the main university of Vienna. Then, they marched to the headquarters of the SPÖ, went in and declared the building occupied. Some of them were not able to hear the rest of what Gusenbauer had in store for them. The "Eurofighters" (military airplanes, produced by EADS), the purchase of which was decided by the last bourgeois government, was not to be cancelled either. This was the second centrepiece of the SPÖ's election victory. Before the elections the SPÖ leadership had declared that a SPÖ would join the government if and only if the purchase of the Eurofighters was cancelled. The money should be instead used for education and social services. But the real hammer blow for the party came only afterwards: the ÖVP had secured all positions of power in the government: the Ministry of the Interior, the Foreign Office, the Ministry for Economy and Work, the Ministry of Health and a further two others had gone to the ÖVP. On top of this: the Ministry of Finance (the most powerful position in government, since it distributes the money to all other ministries) also belonged to the ÖVP. The SPÖ got the short end of the stick. All hell broke loose. Even Hannes Androsch, an ex-minister for the SPÖ in the 1970s and 1980s and now a big capitalist in Austria, declared the coalition pact unacceptable for the SPÖ.

In the meantime the mobile phones of the party secretaries in the rank-and-file organisations began to ring off the hook and the email boxes were filled. Thousands of party members expressed their disappointment and anger over the coalition agreement. They felt betrayed by the party - and they were right. The lower party secretaries could not give them answers - they too were in shock. Some of them protested to the higher secretaries - these were in shock too. Some SPÖ members of regional and even of the national parliament wrote or phoned their protest to the party headquarters. One of them said that he had not experienced such an uprising in the whole of his political life, which had spanned over 30 years.

If things had stopped at this point on Monday evening, maybe Gusenbauer and his clique would have carried the day very easily. But then, the YS organisation nationally, and particularly in Vienna, took the initiative. They mobilised all their members and supporters to head down to the SPÖ headquarters, meeting up with the students that had arrived there before. The SPÖ leadership called the police to protect the non-occupied parts of the building. The YS and the students declared that they would stay in the building and blockade it. The big media slowly understood that something was happening. The YS and the students' organisations were present in each and every newspaper and TV news. The YS shouted in front of the TV cameras, "Gusenbauer out, this is our house" (in German, this is a rhyme). The revolt in the party had begun - the pressure continued to rise.

On Tuesday, January 9, at 11:00am, the central committee of the SPÖ met in order to make a decision on the coalition treaty. On the morning news something was announced, which up until then, would have been unthinkable. The SPÖ organisation in Upper Austria, a very heavily industrialised province of Austria, had decided to vote against the coalition agreement. The workers' organisation of Upper Austria is famous for leaning to the left, but this was unexpected. The workers of Upper Austria had their way in the party. Some of the more sceptical comrades could not believe what was happening, but it was proven by events. All the representatives of the Upper Austrian organisation voted against the coalition in the central committee - with one exception: Maria Berger - and she has now received a portfolio in the government...

Back to events. The YS had called a demonstration in front of parliament, where the central committee meeting had takeb place (of course, they could not use the party HQ any more). Some of the CC members had to pass by the demonstration where the militancy of the slogans reached new heights: "Who betrayed us? Social Democrats!" ("Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!" - another rhyme, very famous and formerly only used by the ever-shrinking Communist Party and some of the sects). The debate at the CC, a body of 70 representatives of the party and its important organisations (the trade union faction of the SPÖ, the YS, the VSStÖ and some others) started with a little delay. 40 interventions were registered and held, overwhelmingly critical of the coalition agreement. In the end, Gusenbauer was under heavy pressure. He said that if the 60% or less of the CC approved of the agreement he would resign and new elections would be held. To extend the pressure, the vote was not taken by a show of hands, but every member, one after the other, was called by name and had to cast his or her vote. Gusenbauer, in this atmosphere of a witch-hunt, secured only 75% percent of the votes. The Upper Austrian organisation, the Vorarlberg SPÖ organisation (where the Marxist-led YS had passed a resolution for a minority government a few months before), the YS, the VSStÖ, the trade union youth faction and even the pensioners' organisation voted against. Scandalously, the leaders of the trade union faction voted for the treaty. Afterwards they told the press that this was only "preliminary" and was done with "reservations". They would discuss this further at their next national meeting, which was to be held on Monday, January 15th. This was only a thin disguise since everybody knew that the government would be sworn in at this date and nothing could be changed after that. In the end, the national meeting of the trade union faction accepted the coalition government with "sorrow".

Tuesday evening saw more militant action taken by the party youth. The SPÖ had organised a "New Year party" for the party-tops and their friends in the bourgeoisie. The YS called a demonstration in front of the building. Police surrounded the building and protected the bureaucracy from their uninvited guests. The YS and the students decided to try to break through the police lines, which they managed to do at two different points. 5 YS-members eventually came into the hall and took up positions in front of the speaker's platform. Not a single one of the party tops had the courage to speak from the platform any more. Even Gusenbauer, who (among some other high functionaries of the SP, including the president of parliament and the president of the trade union umbrella organisation) had to enter the building through the entrance for deliveries, stayed away from the platform. He was so furious about the demonstration that he called the demonstrators "violent communists" on television, causing another uproar in the party.

The swearing-in ceremony of the new government took place on Thursday, January 11. The YS and the student organisation called a demonstration in front of the presidential building, where the ceremony took place. 2000 people turned out to the demo and the government was sworn in while everybody could hear the slogans being shouted from outside the building. Some comrades, who have been active in the movement for a longer time, compared the situation with the swearing-in ceremony of the Schüssel/Haider-government in 2000, where 15,000 people crowded into the same place and the new government had to enter the building through a secret underground entrance. Of course, the numbers of demonstrators were low compared to the year 2000. But the quality and political consciousness was a million times higher. In 2000, demonstrations took place under the leadership of the liberal petty-bourgeoisie, with none or almost no connection to social questions. What was protested against in 2000, was not the anti-working class policies of the bourgeois government (in fact, some of these policies were even supported by the liberal leaders of the movement), but the "moral" inferiority of the ÖVP in building a government bloc with the far-right party of Haider. In 2007, organisations belonging to the labour movement led the protests. This is why social questions came to fore, and the right reformists in the SPÖ were seen as the main enemy, personified in Gusenbauer. The YS played a particular important role, highlighting not only the betrayal of Gusenbauer on the question of the university fees (like the students organisations did), but on a whole range of anti-working-class policies introduced or maintained by the government of Gusenbauer. For example, the new government will change the law in order to allow a 12-hour working day without overtime pay. On top of this, the protection against dismissal for apprentices will be cancelled, allowing the bosses to hire and fire young workers in the interests of short-term profits.

Intense discussions were held in the party from Thursday until Sunday evening. In particular the YS discussed the possibilities for further protest. The national leadership of the YS proposed a campaign for a petition to cancel university fees and increasingly tried to divert the protest away from the party leadership. A component of this would have been to build an alliance with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois organisations like the Organisation of Young Catholics. The Marxists, while not dismissing the idea of the petition in principle (this could be a progressive step if it involved the general mass movement), argued for the immediate launching of an organised left wing in the party. We argued that nothing could prevent the government from implementing their program except the formation of a militant left opposition in the SPÖ. We argued that the conditions for such a step were absolutely ripe and every day that passed without the YS leaders announcing the creation of an organised opposition was a lost day. Eventually, on Sunday morning the leadership of the Viennese YS internally declared that they would not support the idea of the petition and would launch the opposition platform "We are SPÖ" on the same day. The weekly political discussions on the main television station was used to announce this development. A sympathising secretary of the trade unions announced the creation of the "We are SPÖ" campaign from the platform and two YS representatives intervened from the floor, insisting that all left-wingers in the party coordinate and join the "We are SPÖ". Der Funke produced T-shirts with the slogan "We are SPÖ" and 15 YS members were present wearing this shirt at the TV studio. A website for the platform was launched, which immediately received a very high number of visits.

Within a few days, 1000 activists and party members registered to be part of "We are SPÖ" campaign, with a good proportion of representatives from the party, its co-organisations and the trade union faction. This is very good result, given the pressure from the party tops and the tradition of bureaucratic unity in the Austrian labour movement. Within the next few days, some of the problems with the campaign became increasingly clear. The most serious of these was the fact that the YS leadership agreed to downgrade the political profile of the platform, dropping the call for a SPÖ minority government in order to get the support of some high-ranking TU secretaries. Despite this, some of these bureaucrats (who do not want to risk their careers) are not prepared to support the campaign publicly. On top of this, some ex-leaders of the YS now play an important role in the campaign and these want to block a democratic structure of "We are SPÖ". For example, they tried to prevent a meeting of "We are SPÖ" in Vorarlberg, because the Marxists would have won the leading positions. They are also waging a war against the proposal for an immediate conference of the opposition in order to vote on a political program and elect a committee entitled to speak for the campaign. But this a fight of living forces, where the Marxists will intervene.

Whatever the outcome of the immediate struggle for an organised, democratic opposition is, one thing is clear: Austria and its labour movement have entered a new stage of development. The right reformists have taken a step too far, the left is in turn organising an opposition. The youth are turning to the YS, seeing it as the only option to really fight against the pro-capitalist policies of the government. All so-called "Trotskyists" who over the last 10 years argued that the SPÖ was "dead", that the workers and the youth have decisively broken with the traditional workers' party have been proven wrong and have been left with their pants down. Only the Marxist tendency Der Funke, which over the last few years has waged a political fight within the mass workers' organisation against the policy of class collaboration, "social partnership" and thereby raising a high political profile, is at the heart of the process at work. We will fight for a genuine socialist policy, presenting traditional demands as proposals for the political platform of the opposition and argue for a revolutionary way out of the mess the labour movement is currently in because of the betrayals of the bourgeois leadership. Austria is now a perfect example for the general ideas of the world perspectives worked out by the International Marxist Tendency. Under heavy attacks by the bourgeoisie and their agents in the labour movement, the workers and youth have no other way out other than to prepare a counter-offensive, shifting the general mood to the left. Where a point of attraction inside the mass organisations of the working class exists, the resistance against the capitalist offensive is grouped around this. The Marxist tendency will put all its efforts into the building of the opposition and consequently gain new forces for the fight for socialism in Austria and in the world.