Last spring Austria witnessed the biggest strike movement of the last fifty years. Hundreds of thousands of workers responded to the call of the ÖGB (the Austrian Trade Union Confederation) to protest against the so-called "pensions reform". With two days of strike action and a mass demonstration in Vienna, the Austrian working class demonstrated clearly its potential to stop the attacks of the right-wing government.
In spite of this, the movement ended in a defeat because at the beginning of June, suddenly from one day to the next, the leadership of the ÖGB called off further strike without having won any concession and furthermore without giving any explanation.
The conclusion that many trade union activists came to was clear: if we had fought to the end, we could have won. Therefore in spite of the defeat, the mood was far from being one of pessimism or demoralisation. After this victory the government, led by the conservative PP, believed it was now stronger and has therefore begun to wage new attacks. This time they aim to go further. They wish to smash the strongholds of the Austrian labour movement.
Privatisation and roll back
The strategy of the bourgeois is quite obvious. The fact that they were able to push through the latest pensions reform was seen by them as a major step forward. They believe they are now strong enough to move on and continue with their long-term project of completely changing the way Austrian society is run. Their plan is to shift the balance in favour of the capitalist class.
One of the main planks in this policy is the cutting back of the "welfare state". But that obviously is not enough. They also wish to weaken the influence of the trade union movement and deny the workers the organisational means with which to fight back against the bosses. The next measures that the government plans to introduce have a clear objective: to break the strength of the trade unions and the shop stewards in key sectors and enterprises of the Austrian economy.
The plan to totally privatise the steel industry brings this policy to a new high point. The steel industry and other important industrial and service enterprises have been highly profitable in the last period. We are in a period of economic stagnation and low profits in most of the economy. Therefore private investors are looking for new and profitable fields of investment. That explains why there has been a lot of pressure on the government from several lobbies for it to proceed with its privatisation plans. The interests of the workers in these industries and even more the destiny of whole towns and regions are being completely subordinated to the thirst for profits of these investment groups.
The way this process of privatisation was being hurriedly pushed through was even criticised by the PP-led audit office and led to a major dispute within the government coalition and also between regional PP leaders and the national leadership of the conservative party. The report of the audit office was quite critical and one bourgeois paper described it as a "list of sins of an elitist bunch of ministers, industrialists and head-hunters".
The ministers hired a group of extremely well paid head-hunters (all with good personal links to leading representatives of the government parties) who had to choose extremely well paid managers whose only job would be to prepare the privatisation of these industries. While publicly attacking the so-called "privileges" of the workers in these industries and threatening to destroy tens of thousands of jobs over the next few years, the government has been handing out huge salaries and big privileges to its friends and cronies. Of course, while all this is happening, behind the scenes "a bunch of friendly investors" (The Economist) is impatiently waiting to get its hands on the jewels of Austrian industry and to enrich themselves at the expense of thousands of workers.
A government of the capitalists
Already before this scandal had come out into the open, the government was shaken by another scandal this summer demonstrating once again the real class character of this government. The Minister of Finance and darling of the bourgeois media, Karl-Heinz Grasser, was openly backed by the Association of Industrialists (IV) with millions of euros. The IV provided enormous sums for several of Grasser’s public relations projects and they brazenly justified this. Lorenz Fritz, the chairman of the IV, argued, "We just want to support those political forces that guarantee liberal policies." It is worth noting that the only political party that receives no funding from the IV is the Social Democratic Party, and that is because of its links to the trade unions!
In quite a frank and open interview Mr. Fritz gave an insight into the real way modern class societies operate. Mr. Grasser also openly and unashamedly advertises which class interests he really defends. In late August he accepted an invitation from leading capitalists in major commercial enterprises to holiday with them. The most widely read Austrian newspaper a little later published photos of Grasser posing next to these capitalists dressed as mountaineers. And surprise surprise, two days later he was publicly demanding the full liberalisation of the opening hours of supermarkets! Grasser is also responsible for the plan to privatise state run industries and now he has a new project to work on: an attack on the railway workers!
Already this summer conservative politicians (supported by some right-wing newspapers) started a witch-hunt against the railway workers and their alleged privileges. The government plans to "reform" the public railways into a holding and a limited company. The "productivity" of the railway workers is to be further increased. What they mean by this is that 12,000 jobs are to be destroyed. By withholding public finance from these state owned industries the government is putting pressure on the management to put these plans into action. The government is also clearly stating that part of this process involves weakening the power of the railway workers’ union! This is a major precondition for privatising the whole of this sector.
The struggle against privatisation
The events of the last few weeks have, however, shown once more that the Austrian working class is prepared to fight back and to defend their rights against the attacks of the bosses. In Linz, heartland of the Austrian steel industry, 15,000 workers came out onto the streets to demonstrate against privatisation. In interviews many steel workers made it clear that they are ready to fight by all means necessary. One worker said, "We will fight till no private investor wants to buy our factory!" Many workers and ordinary shop stewards have been supporting a very radical line in this dispute.
However, the trade union leaders once again brought the struggle to a halt without mobilising the whole strength of the movement. Opinion polls show that 44% are totally against any privatisation and a further 17% are demanding that the regional government take over the company that is going to be privatised by the national government so as to avoid privatisation! Only 20% of the population supports the plans of the government.
The pressure from below has been so strong that all the political parties in Upper Austria have been forced to criticise the privatisation plans and have adopted a strategy of public ownership through the regional government. This fact alone demonstrates that public opinion is absolutely in favour of the labour movement.
In spite of this wave of opposition, the union leaders have limited the scope of their demands. They have naively appealed to the President to intervene. They have also called for the percentage of shares that the workforce of the steel mills and the trade unions will be able to hold to be raised to 10% of the total. The reason for this is that companies and banks owned or controlled by the regional government of Upper Austria will also buy some of the shares, 15% of the total. The union leaders thus hope they will be to build a so-called "blocking minority", with which they believe they would be able avoid the destruction of the company and the loss of thousands of jobs in the future. This is a completely utopian way of thinking. It is merely a way of getting the workers to accept privatisation. Such a strategy has never worked. In other countries shares have been sold to the workforce, but real power always remains in the hands of the big investors. The experience of the next few years will show that this is a losing strategy. This strategy of the union leaders will prove to be an impasse for the workers in the steel industry. And this will lead to even more bitter struggles in the future.
Tens of thousands of railway workers are facing the same situation. At the end of August the union organised a big shop stewards conference with some 2000 participants. The purpose of the conference was to decide on a work-to-rule (a boycott of overtime work) in protest against a recent statement of government representatives, according to whom 12,000 railway workers do not do any useful work and that these jobs should be destroyed. The mood among the shop stewards was one of anger and preparedness to struggle. They were openly in favour of opening up a conflict. But the trade union leaders had other plans. Without there having been any voting, and even before the meeting had started, the union leadership held a press conference where they announced to the journalists the "results" of the meeting! First there will be "serious" negotiations with the government and only then will the union decide whether any action is still necessary...
For democratic and fighting trade unions
Such methods have only one effect. The trade union leaders frustrate the rank and file activists and give the government and the capitalists enough confidence to continue with their attacks. The railway and steel workers, with their strong unions, have an enormous importance in the further development of the class struggle in Austria. If the bourgeois are victorious against these two key sections of the working class, this will be an open invitation for them to go on the offensive against the whole of the working class.
They already have plans to cut public spending in the health service. Facing economic crisis, important representatives of the capitalist class are demanding further flexibility in working hours, the right to hire and fire as they please and a further worsening of the conditions of unemployed workers. And we can also be sure that the next pensions reform" is underway...
In October the ÖGB will be holding its congress. Internal democracy within the ÖGB is far from what it should be. The strongly centralised and bureaucratised structures of the ÖGB have been a precondition for its policy of social partnership. The problem for the leadership now is that the social partnership of the past is definitely over in Austria. What we can see emerging now is the class struggle. And it is the bosses and their government that are taking the initiative in provoking this struggle.
Faced with this situation the unions need to develop a new strategy if they wish to defend the rights of the workers. To start with what is needed is a thorough and critical discussion about the methods of the union leadership during the last period. This debate has to be a democratic one. It should start in the workplaces and then link up through conferences of shop stewards.
We have to discuss the reasons for this new situation. Why is it that the capitalists reject the call of the union leadership for a revival of social partnership? Why are all these attacks taking place, even if they will lead to disaster? Why are they planning to privatise the railways or the postal service? Why are the capitalists closing one important factory after another, in spite of the unions having accepted all the redundancies and wage cuts that were demanded of them by the bosses? How can we stop this government? These, and many more, are the questions that need to be answered.
The present union leaders have proven to be incapable of answering these questions. They are stubbornly sticking to the old and failed methods of social partnership. What we need to do in the coming period is to link up the most advanced layers among the shop stewards and rank and file activists to come together and to develop a more militant union strategy to defend the rights of the working class. The congress of the ÖGB and the coming labour disputes should be taken as the starting point for building such a left opposition within the ÖGB.
Vienna, September 15, 2003.