Austria: rain, hail and a wave of protest - 200,000 workers march against the pensions reform

Tuesday afternoon Vienna saw the biggest thunderstorms people can remember. Despite these catastrophic weather conditions 200,000 workers turned up from all over the country in response to the call of the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) to protest against the proposed pensions "reform".

Yesterday afternoon Vienna saw the biggest thunderstorms people can remember. In just two hours 61 litres of rain per square metre, mixed with hailstones as big as eggs, poured down on the Austrian capital. Normally this is not the kind of weather that Austrians like to go out in. However, yesterday it was different.

Bad weather, good mood

Despite these catastrophic weather conditions 200,000 workers turned up from all over the country in response to the call of the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) to protest against the proposed pensions reform of the (People’s Party) conservative-led government of chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.

At 4 p.m. the first buses and trains arrived at the two main railway stations in Vienna where the two sections of the demonstration were to start from. Because of the heavy rain the workers had gathered inside the railway station as they waited for the demo start. All over the stations thousands of workers were whistling and shouting slogans. It was clear that everyone there was determined to march against the government cuts even under these terrible weather conditions. One worker said, “Schüssel may have the god of weather on his side, but this won’t stop us.” A metal worker from Vienna told me, “Let’s hope that one of these hailstones will hit Schüssel.” In the faces of the workers you could see a real determination to struggle. As they came out of the station you could see that everybody wanted to express the idea that nothing was going to stop our protest.

The mood on the demo was really excellent. People were laughing, the youth organisation of the ÖGB had two trucks with music where young workers where dancing and waving their union banners. All the unions were present, the building workers, railway workers, metal workers, nurses, teachers, public sector workers… Many of them came from the provinces. Those from the west of Austria had to leave very early in the morning to arrive in Vienna on time. The railway workers’ union had organised 10 special trains for this demo and they were all completely full. In Styria, a very industrial region, all the coaches had been fully booked up and there were no more that could be booked as they had all been taken by the unions to get everyone to Vienna that wanted to participate in the demo. The whole demo was full of union flags and self-made banners. The 2000 workers from the steel mills in Linz had a banner saying, “You cannot fight when you are sitting down”. A group of young workers carried a coffin symbolising the end of the state pensions. The women’s organisation of the ÖGB called their members to wear black clothes to protest against the pensions reform.

The teachers had already started their strike in the morning. The teachers were protesting against the pension plans as well as against the proposed cuts in the education system. According to the teachers’ union 90% of the schools had come out on strike. In several schools the headmasters had tried to prevent the strike, especially in the private schools and those which are owned by the Chamber of Commerce. Nevertheless, even in such schools there were examples where the teachers organised assemblies and voted in favour of the strike despite the threats from the headmasters and the Ministry of Education.

At 6.30pm the first demonstrators arrived at the Heldenplatz (the biggest square in the centre of Vienna). At the same time as the head of the demo was arriving in the square there were still people waiting at the stations because the streets were already so overcrowded that the demo could only move forward very slowly. At the end it proved impossible for everybody to get into the square and listen to the speeches of the union leaders.

This was definitely the biggest union demo since the Second World War. And it has been without doubt the most militant expression of the Austrian workers’ movement for decades. One worker was quoted in “Die Presse” as saying the following words, “This is surprisingly the most wonderful and joyful demo I have ever been on. Marching together under heavy rain has strengthened our feeling that we have to stick together even more.”

The general mood after this demo could be summed up in the following way: it was worth coming here to show our protest; probably it will not be enough to stop the government but we are prepared to continue the struggle.

What next?

The reaction of the government after the demo is one of complete arrogance. Those ministers that were prepared to give interviews clearly stated that the government will go ahead with its plans anyway. Yesterday the government even had the cheek to propose a reform of the pensions for members of Parliament which would introduce the right to early retirement for them, when at the same time the government is planning to put an end to early retirement for ordinary workers. This is a clear provocation. The People’s Party are not prepared to change their reform substantially. Their aim is to push the reform through parliament according to the schedule the government had given itself. The so-called “round table” that is being organised by the President, Thomas Klestil, will achieve nothing and will offer no improvements for the workers. It is being pushed by those sections of the ruling class who are afraid of provoking bitter class conflict. Their aim is merely to calm down the unions and to avoid an escalation of the class struggle.

The union leaders have one big aim in mind: to return to the “good old days” of social partnership. Wolfgang ‘Thatcher’ (as chancellor Schüüsel is called by ‘The Economist’ in its latest issue) will not be able to grant these wishes of the ÖGB. The “round table” is just a farce. Wolfgang Schüssel has openly declared that this “round table” will not change the fundamentals of the pension reform. So the only way the ÖGB can proceed over the next few weeks is along the road of struggle. Last night the chairman of the ÖGB, Fritz Verzetnitsch, already came under pressure and had to answer the question of whether he is ready to call for a general strike following the example of the unions in France. His reply was that he has to be very careful with such a slogan and that he hoped the government will come to the conclusion that it cannot govern against the people.

But whatever the wishes of the union leaders may be, further strike action will be necessary. And the important thing to understand is that workers are prepared to continue the struggle. Yesterday’s demo was an important step in strengthening the resolve of the Austrian workers and increasing the militancy of the Austrian labour movement. The pressures from below will definitely increase now. Once the workers are on the streets it won’t be so easy for the union leaders to stop the movement. Whatever the weather may be over the next few weeks the period that is opening up will be a very heated one in Austria.

Role of the state

It is also worth noting that the class struggle is not a one-way street. The ruling class is also trying to strike back with its own weapons. Already last Tuesday when the ÖGB called for a day of action with strikes and traffic we had a taste of what is to come. A police officer (who is also a member of the right wing FPÖ) intervened heavily against a group of workers who were trying to block an important crossroads in Salzburg. Subsequently the ÖGB received a fine of 720 euros for organising a demo which had not been announced through the proper channels. And yesterday a court in Salzburg announced that postal workers should not be allowed to go on strike. It is obvious that this decision is politically motivated and would be a heavy blow against one of the most militant and combative sections of the Austrian working class. Even at this early stage, when we are seeing the first open signs of the class struggle, the state apparatus is showing its real face as an institution to defend the interests of the ruling class. And this is just a first warning to the labour movement.

The situation is quite clear. There is only one way of stopping the government and its pensions reform. We have to organise more militant class action. The demo yesterday was an important step in the right direction. Now it is the task of the most militant union activists and shop stewards to put forward the slogan of a general strike against the pensions reform and to build the movement from below.