The strike of the Austrian railway workers – a taste of things to come

After the pension reform in spring 2003, the conservative black-blue government (Peoples Party and Freedom Party) wasted no time in launching a new attack on the Austrian labour movement. The Austrian Railways (OeBB) were to be split up similar to the fragmentation of British Rail 10 years ago into 10 different companies. This would make downsizing the workforce much easier and would also have tremendous effects on one of the most highly organised sectors of the labour movement. After the pension reform in spring 2003, the conservative black-blue government (Peoples Party and Freedom Party) wasted no time in launching a new attack on the Austrian labour movement. The Austrian Railways (OeBB) were to be split up – similar to the fragmentation of British Rail 10 years ago – into 10 different companies. This would make downsizing the workforce much easier and would also have tremendous effects on one of the most highly organised sectors of the labour movement. Almost all railway workers are in the Trade Unions (GdE = Railway Workers Union), and the majority of them are in the social-democratic faction of the TUC. Despite the fact that even the Austrian Court of Auditors warned of the effects of a privatisation and splintering of the railways, the government were more concerned with crushing the organised labour movement of Austria.

The workers on the move

The GdE organised a 12-hour warning strike on November the 4th, to put pressure on the government. The strike was 100 percent solid, no train moved from 0:00 am to 12:00 noon throughout Austria. The government tried to make the strikes appear ridiculous (“no effects on the economy”) and started an aggressive propaganda full of hate and lies against the workers and the TUC.

Further negotiations between the GdE and the government ended without any success. On November 11th the so-called “Railway-Reform” was passed by the council of ministers. The reaction of the GdE was to call an unlimited strike, which started on Wednesday, November 12th at 0:00 am. On the first day of the strike the Coaches of the Postal services also participated. On the one hand they were striking against their own privatisation, on the other they were expressing their solidarity with their sisters and brothers of the railways. In Vienna one delegation of the Postal Workers “stormed” a press conference of the GdE to express their solidarity. 7,500 trains, more than 2,300 busses and 1.2 million passengers were affected by the strike.

The management of the OeBB began to threaten the workers who participated in the strike with the sack and legal action. But the will of the workers could not be easily broken. Although the strike was led in an undemocratic and bureaucratic way by the GdE, the workers in the railway stations were conscious of the role and the importance of the strike for the whole Austrian labour movement.

The end of the strike

The strike was cancelled by the GdE on Friday 14th November at 5.40 pm. The economic power of the strike could be seen quite clearly: If the strike had continued throughout the weekend, the blast furnaces of the Austrian steel factories would have had to shut down. Also the paper industry and the oil industry would have come to a standstill. The “Who’s who” of the Austrian economy (as the bourgeoisie paper “Die Presse” called it correctly) was affected by cuts in their production. At the Austrian borders there were 300 trains which waiting to move. The rail companies of Italy and Germany intervened to put pressure on the Austrian government to end the strike. As a result of Austria’s central geographical position in the EU, the strike was also a big blow for the European economy.

Therefore the government decided to accept a compromise offer, made by the trade unions. A standstill of large sectors of Austrian production would have been too high a price in times of economic crisis.
The compromise declares that the trade unions are still partners in the collective agreement. There will be no intervention into the private contracts of the workers, for the moment. 

Although the splitting of the OeBB wasn’t stopped , this was a success for the Austrian Labour movement, because a defeat on this question would have meant an attack on all other sectors of the working class.
The agreement also includes a cut in costs until April 2004 of 100 million Euros. Therefore the GdE has two possibilities in the near future: Either to spread the cuts over all workers and sectors of the railways or to take up the fight once more.

What has to be done to win this fight

Many ordinary workers in the railway stations have already begun to draw conclusions, for example, that it is not enough to develop economic pressure through a strike. During the strike they remained in their rooms and waited for things to happen. Meanwhile the bourgeois media attacked them with lies and threats. There is also an ideological struggle that has to be won. The workers have to get out of their rooms onto the streets to explain their aims and the reasons for the strike to other workers. Therefore, democratic trade unions and strike committees are essential. The workers themselves have to decide when, how long and how they struggle. They have to define the demands and slogans of the strike. With a democratic leadership, the lies of the media would have been blown away. It would have been possible, not only to crush the plans of the privatisation, but also to put an end to the conservative government.

The lessons of the strike

An important lesson of the past strike of the railway workers is the need of internal democracy. The workers were far from being exhausted by their strike-action. Attempts to widen the movement were quite concrete: a national shop-stewards meeting of the printers and journalists was going to convene to discuss solidarity action; in many industries (including council-services, oil-industry, metal-industry) solidarity strikes were planned. A nation-wide demonstration of the trade-unions was also planed on 22nd November.  The call for a general-strike was widely heared in the movement. This battle could have been a complete victory, if the TUC-leadership would not have stopped half-way.

Although the strike only achieved a small part of its demands, it was a big step forward for the Austrian Labour Movement. After decades of social partnership and ideological defeats, everyone in the Austrian TUC now knows that strikes can be successful. The Austrian labour movement is waking from a deep sleep, which has lasted almost since the 1950’s. In 2003 we have already experienced strikes by the Postal workers, the Pilots of the Austrian Airlines (AUA) and a strike against ‘pension reform’ in the spring with 1.2 million workers participating. The struggle of the railway workers is not over yet, it will be continued, because the attacks of the capitalists won’t stop.