On April 23 the National Executive of the ÖGB, the umbrella organisation of 13 trade unions (the equivalent of the British TUC), took a historic step in its unanimous decision to call for strike action. This comes after five decades of class-collaboration and so-called "consensus" democracy.
In the early elections of November 2002, the Popular Party (the Austrian equivalent of the Conservative party) achieved a stunning victory, catapulting itself from third place to number one. This was the first time since 1966 that the conservatives had outstripped the Social Democratic party.
With this election, victory Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel opened an historic gate for his party and his class. He won a huge authority among his own party, which historically had always been divided into different organised groupings, in which the small shopkeepers and farmers were the most influential.
During the process of establishing a new government it also became clear that the representatives of the big capitalist associations were putting all their hopes in the will of Wolfang Schüssel, who finally decided to form another government with the unstable but aggressive anti-working class party, the FPÖ.
In April, when the whole of public interest was concentrated on the imperialist aggression against Iraq, the government came up with their most vicious attacks on the living standards of the workers. In order to avoid public debate the government has been trying to push through parliament a very long and detailed 800-page document, which contains 91 different laws, all designed to put the burden of the capitalist crisis onto the shoulders of our class.
Liberal commentators are particularly shocked at the dismantling of parliamentary procedure and the authoritarian style of government of the Popular Party leaders, but at this moment the most pressing question for the working class is the vicious content of the attacks.
The core of the counter-reforms affects the pension system. The measures taken include raising the retirement age by three years to the age of 65 for men and 60 for women, and cuts in pensions by up to 45 per cent(!), which simply means poverty for working class people. Other so-called reforms affect the state education system (which comes after earlier attacks on education), the introduction of generalised fees for any kind of medical treatment (20% of the costs of treatment will have to paid by the patient) and at the same time they want us to pay more national insurance contributions.
Furthermore the plans include the selling off and downsizing of all remaining public industries and services. The railways would be broken up into no less then 20 different companies. The plan for the railways also involves the transfer of all workers to one company which would officially employ them and then they would be "leased back" to the different 20 companies. This, of course, would take place after one third of the present workforce (15,000 workers) are laid off.
Also the postal services are going to be downsized and sold off to an international monopoly. The remaining public stakes in the metal industry (Vöst-Alpine and Böhler-Uddeholm) and smaller state-run companies are also to be downsized and sold off. Their plans are obviously to break the back of the Austrian labour movement.
At the same time as the government is attacking the workers, it has announced tax cuts for big business and the purchase of 18 Euro-fighter war planes designed for international aggressions.
The trade unions have mobilised the main resistance around the question of the cuts in pensions. On May 6, Austria saw the first generalised strike movement since October 1950. All in all strike action involved around one million workers. The strike was opened up by the printers, who stopped the production of all newspapers (except for one regional paper). The railway workers stopped the movement of goods for 12 hours. Public transport in all the major cities was halted in the early hours of the day. The high school teachers did not give lessons but organised workplace assemblies. The hospital and police services, as well as other public services, were limited. In many factories (320 in the metal industry alone) the workers stopped work from between 2 and 8 hours and organised assemblies or went out to organise street blockades. In the morning the streets leading to the main cities (Vienna, Salzburg, Klagenfurt...) were blocked by trade unionists.
The next step in escalating the movement is a national demonstration, with several hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, is going to be held in Vienna tomorrow, Tuesday May 13.
As the "sleeping colossus" of the ÖGB is starting to wake up, things are starting to get turbulent in this "charming Alpine republic", and it is not yet clear how things are going to develop over the coming period. The uncertainty of the situation is even affecting the trade unions. The top leaders of the unions are not actually opposed to the general line of these so-called "reforms". What has angered them is the fact that they were not consulted first by the government. This is how things were done over the last fifty years. But now things have changed. The old cosy relationship is no longer possible.
So officially the aim of the strike is to postpone the reform until September and then have a "properly negotiated reform which is acceptable to all forces in society". This slogan is clearly designed to leave a way out for the trade union leaders, and allow them to call off the mobilisations and reach an agreement with the government as soon as possible.
However, things are not going to be so easy. The fact that the self-confident and "visionary" Wolfang Schüssel is not willing to have any discussions with the trade unions, and is not prepared to let his plans be delayed by the "Proleten" [the workers], adds a symbolic note to this conflict. It is not just the pension system that is at stake, but the whole political system of so-called "social partnership" that is being broken up so as to facilitate the so-called "modernisation" of Austria.
The trade union bureaucracy, this servant of two masters, is now forced to mobilise the working class as their feeding troughs are going to be hanged higher. At the same time they are quite frightened by the bourgeoisie, but they are even more frightened by the workers themselves.
To any worker who took part in the strike on May 6, it was abundantly clear that that show of strength was not enough to make the government announce their retreat. The actions were mostly limited locally and the unions tried to avoid the coming together of the striking workers into bigger meetings. Many shop stewards reported that during the meetings at their workplaces much more radical positions were being put forward by the workers at rank and file level, such as sabotage action and a general strike.
In fact, the mood on the shop-floor is one of anger and hatred against the government, which many of the workers had actually voted for only some months earlier. Where there was a channel to express this frustration, it turned into militant and bold actions on the part of the workers. In Vienna 5000 nurses took to the streets, and they did it with an exuberance that this city has not seen for many years. In one factory that belongs to a Popular Party MP, the workers locked their boss out and had the best day they have ever had on the shop-floor!
Even now, in the early days of this developing conflict, the willingness to go further is clear in many workplaces. It seems that several workplace meetings took the decision to go on strike. Then the workers phoned the trade union offices for help, but the reply they got was that their strike was "unnecessary" and "illegal".
In those factories where the workers have already suffered downsizing, with the help of the trade unions (especially in the formerly state-owned steel mills), the mood of the workers was often one of wait and see. Clearly they have already had an experience of these trade union leaders and they do not want to be part of the next defeat.
But even here the workers instinctively know what to do. In one factory meeting at Voest-Alpine in Linz, when the microphone was given to the workers to speak, one worker raised the demand for a general strike, but the microphone was immediately taken away from him and handed back to the platform.
On the other hand, in those factories where the workers have not suffered any such defeats in the past the mood is an enthusiastic one.
Thus tomorrow’s national demonstration will be another huge show of strength. The most likely thing is that we will see scenario these mobilisations continue until June 4, the day the law is scheduled to be voted through parliament. In the build up to that date further strikes are going to be held. The "strategy of escalation" which the trade union leaders have raised is still a secret to the workers. One idea which has been raised is that the next wave of strikes is going to be organised exclusively against those companies that belong to government ministers, MPs and other government cronies. However, so long as the government can feel sure that these mobilisations will be brought to an end by the trade union leaders once the law is passed in parliament, the bourgeoisie can feel confident that it can go ahead undisturbed.
However it is still early days and nothing has been decided, as we are in the middle of a battle between living forces, and it is not clear at this moment which scenario is going to be open up. This mass resistance against these "reforms" is causing big problems inside the FPÖ, the weaker of the two parties that make up the coalition government.
The president of the Republic is calling for a "round table" because he fears social upheaval. This is also mainly the position of the Social Democratic leaders. The most important thing is that the trade union leaders themselves do not seem to be sure and united among themselves on the question of how they should proceed from here.
Whichever way this battle finally ends, what is clear is that the dam has been burst. In times of mobilisation the leadership of the organisations of the working class are put to the test and already now it is clear that the days of long standing trade union leaders, including the chairman of the ÖGB himself, are numbered.
What is clear is that fresh new layers will come to the fore in the trade unions. More militant shop-stewards will we voted onto the committees in the workplaces. In the end, the so-called "compromise" that the union leaders are hoping for, in essence, will be fundamentally no different from what is being proposed now: a raising of the age of retirement and a lowering of pensions.
But what the workers want is completely different. They are not fighting to simply have the signature of the chairman of the ÖGB on the government’s proposals. They want and need a real victory as they are being squeezed daily in the workplaces in front of their computers or at their machines. They need to defend the present age of retirement, as after years of work they are simply exhausted.
Even now we are seeing this kind of rank and file militancy developing. On May 7, the postal workers in Salzburg fought an unofficial strike against job cuts. The shop-steward who organised this action is now being victimised and harassed by the public prosecutor. And the union is backing the state authorities and management! Pressure from below is beginning to have an effect also. There is the example of the leader of the union of high-school teachers who resigned last week after he had come under severe and long-lasting criticism of his compromising position.
As we can see from all these developments, a fundamental change has taken place in Austrian society. Austria has finally entered the arena of the class struggle - and this is good news for all those who have maintained that compromise is no longer possible, and that the gains of the working class can only be defended through militant action. Two things are necessary now, the calling of general strike on the one hand, and a campaign for the democratisation of the organisations of the working class on the other. These are the main issues that we, the Marxists of "Der Funke", are putting forward as the most elementary preconditions for a working class victory.
May 11, 2003.