Austria: Unions bring coalition between SP and PP down

Since 1945 Austrian politics were characterised by coalition governments with the participation of the Socialist Party. But on Friday January 21st the pressure from the trade unions forced the break-down of coalition talks between the SP and the conservative PP. Gernot Trausmuth, Editorial board of the Austrian Marxist magazine 'Der Funke' , looks at the implications of this for the future of the class struggle in Austria. January 2000.

Austrian history after 1945 was characterised by the fact that its ruling class was too weak to govern through its own bourgeois party. That is why, from the beginning it had to rely on the reformist mass organisations of the labour movement (Socialdemocratic Party, SP, and the Trade Union Council ÖGB). Proof of this weakness were the decisive role of state industry, as well as Austria's foreign policy based on "neutrality" (although behind the scenes Austria was fully integrated in the Western bloc!).

This was also reflected in the composition of the Austrian governments since 1945. With the exception of the period 1966-70, the SP always participated in the government. Since 1970 the Socialdemocrats have even held the position of the Chancellor. In the last 13 years the SP in a coalition with the conservative Peoples Party implemented a government programme of severe attacks against the welfare state and against workers' rights, of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation. The balance of power in society has shifted noticeably in favour of the ruling class. On the shop-floor we have witnessed a real backslash. Rising unemployment, worsening working conditions and the permanent fear of losing their jobs dominate the lives of the Austrian workers. In the factories and workplaces frustration and rage have been accumulating among the working class.

The parliamentary elections in October 1999 marked a clear turning point (see Austria after the elections: Social Democracy in crisis). The old coalition seemed to be dead. Within the PP and the employers' associations the forces tending towards a coalition between the PP and the extreme right-wing Freiheitliche Partei of Jörg Haider were gaining more and more influence.

Nevertheless the PP entered negotiations with the SP. The "modernisers" within the leadership of the SP (influenced by the ideas of Blair and Schröder) were prepared to do everything to stay in the government, even if this meant giving up everything the Socialdemocracy had always stood for. After more than 100 days of negotiations, the leadership of SP and PP finally reached an agreement on the programme of the new government. It was so obvious that the Conservatives had imposed their criteria in these negotiations, that even the most right-wing representatives of the PP were convinced that it made sense to continue this coalition with the SP.

The coalition agreement looked as if it had been written only by the PP. They planned an increase of the retiring age from 60 to 62 years for men and from 55 to 57 for women, the introduction of tuition fees in some parts of the education system, severe attacks on civil servants, cuts in the pension system, complete privatisation of the state sector, further increases of indirect taxation (motor-way tolls, tax on oil) and cuts in state subsidies for the railways. On the other hand, the bosses would pay less in social security contributions. On the question of foreign policy it was agreed to sign a military mutual assistance pact within the EU as a further step towards joining NATO.

This coalition agreement was a complete sell-out of the SP "modernisers" around Chancellor Viktor Klima. The modernisers were prepared to make concessions on all issues, they were prepared for an openly bourgeois policy. But there was one thing they hadn't reckoned with: within the party executive Klima was faced with strong resistance from the trade union leaders. The trade union wing of the SP was not prepared to sign this agreement. The ÖGB headquarters were flooded by a wave of protest calls, faxes and e-mails from workplaces, shop stewards and from union and SP-members. The railway workers' union, the postal workers' union, the teachers' union, have already decided to organise workplace meetings to inform the workers, as the first measure of protest. The refuse collection workers in Vienna decided to go on strike as soon as the government introduced the attack on pensions. In the VOEST steel factory, one of the biggest factories in the country and a traditional stronghold of the SP, all the SP shop stewards said that they would no longer run on the SP list if the cuts in the pensions system were introduced. The pressure was so big that even the most right wing bureaucrats in the unions, who in the past supported all the cuts, had to stand firm. The mood among union members was so angry that they had no other possibility than to oppose these plans to "balance the budget".

Because of this resistance from the shop floor, the PP put enormous pressure on Klima & co. to control the union wing by forcing the chairman of the Socialdemocratic Union Faction, Nürnberger (who is also the chairman of the metalworkers' union), to sign the agreement. Furthermore the PP demanded the position of Finance Minister for themselves. This was too much for the leadership of the SP. In the end the negotiations between the SP and PP collapsed completely at the end of last week.

Now the SP wants to form a minority government with the support of one of the other parties, but without a parliamentary majority this alternative seems very unlikely. Already the PP and Haider have taken the decision to make it impossible for the Socialdemocrats to form a government and to start negotiations themselves to form a bourgeois government. On all the main questions these two parties stand for the same ideas. We can expect severe attacks on the welfare state, starting with the pension system. This political crisis marks the end of the Second Republic. The ruling class has decided to declare war on the labour movement. They will now try to launch an offensive against all the rights of the workers in this country. Stormy clouds are gathering over Austria, the former "island of the blessed", as it was called by the Pope some years ago. Those days are over. This year we will see a revival of the class struggle in our country.

In the last few days the union activists have shown again that it is possible to resist. Now it will be the task of the labour movement to prepare for another wave of attacks. Because of the precarious situation of the state finances and international pressure to balance the budget, the next government will have to make cuts in the welfare state. The Austrian Marxists will do everything to help to organise a fightback. The building of a strong left wing within the SP and the unions is a precondition for a successful struggle against the coming bourgeois counter-offensive. Join the Marxist tendency within the SP!

Gernot Trausmuth
Vienna, January 25th, 2000

Translated from the Austrian Marxist magazine Der Funke