Austria: Spring awakening in Vienna – 15.000 march against the crisis

Austria is in recession, and it gets worse as each day passes. More and more workers are being hit hard, with sackings and cuts in hours and wages. On Saturday we had a taste of what is to come, with a successful demonstration which initially the trade union leaders refused to support, but were later forced to back as the pressure from the ranks built up.

After a long and cold winter finally the sun has started to shine in Vienna; in the parks the trees have started to bloom and the first flowers have appeared. And Saturday’s demonstration with some 15,000 people taking part has definitely put an end to a political situation characterized on the surface by a sort of social graveyard peace.

Werner Faymann is chair of SPÖ and head of a government that is planning a massive 10% cut in public expenditure. Photo by Werner Faymann on Flickr.
Werner Faymann is chair of SPÖ and head of a government that is planning a massive cut in public expenditure. Photo by Werner Faymann on Flickr.

In the meantime it is clear to everybody, and last but not least also to the so-called “economic experts” in research institutes and the government, that Austria cannot escape the deepest economic crisis since 1929. Official figures show that Austria is already in recession and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. All the claims of the newly elected government coalition (Social Democratic Party, SPÖ, and the conservative People’s Party, ÖVP) last autumn that the programme to bail-out the banks (with hundreds of billions of Euros) and two programmes to boost economic recovery have evaporated.

The government is now planning a new budget with cuts of 10 per cent on all items which had not previously been foreseen by law. The aim of the government was to keep the budget deficit at 2.5 percent. Already under this precondition the new budget was based on severe attacks on the conditions of public sector workers. The most important issue in Austrian politics at the moment is the question of whether teachers should work an extra two hours. This is the plan of the Social Democratic Minister of Education, something which has provoked massive protests on the part of the teachers. In mass assemblies between 95 and 100 per cent of the teachers voted for strike action. Similar attacks are planned for other sections of the civil servants as well as deep cuts on the railways. Now the Minister of Finances Josef Pröll (who is also the leader of the ÖVP) has explained in an interview that the budget deficit will be much bigger than expected. In other words, further down the line more cuts will be on the agenda!

Furthermore, Austrian industry, which is very much export orientated, is in a free fall as an official speaker of the Industriellenvereinigung (the Austrian bosses’ association) put it recently. Especially the auto parts industry and most of the steel and metal industry is being hit severely. 40,000 workers are already on “Kurzarbeit” (a state funded short time working scheme where workers are not laid off immediately but where they work less and earn 10 per cent less). Thousands of jobs have already been cut. The first to go have been the contract workers. A veritable economic tsunami has hit the Austrian workers. Many are being forced to rethink the neoliberal dogma that “the market will sort out everything”. Wherever you go people are discussing the causes and the effects of the crisis. After the initial shock now criticism of the bankers and the government is becoming louder. And we are only at the beginning.

The only reason why everything has seemed calm until now is due to the role of the leadership of the ÖGB (the Austrian confederation of trade unions). The new leadership of the SPÖ has brought back into the fold the trade union leaders after the fall of the last government coalition in summer 2008. Only by leaning again on its trade union wing was the SPÖ able to win the parliamentary elections. In fact, under the conditions of severe economic crisis the SPÖ leaders had to offer some ministries to the ÖGB leadership in order to calm the industrial front. Former ÖGB president Rudolf Hundstorfer is now Minister for Social Affairs and responsible for questions such as Kurzarbeit [short time working] and unemployment.

The new government coalition started off with a very cosy relationship between the SPÖ and ÖVP. They both committed themselves to putting an end the “quarrelling” of the past. Together they solemnly declared that they would lead the country through this difficult period we have before us. This bubble of a honeymoon was only possible because they had the backing of the trade union leadership which has shown in practice that they are not prepared to organise an effective protest against the sackings, factory closures and cuts.

However, it was not only the bubbles in the financial system that had to burst at some point. Also this honeymoon had to break down sooner or later. As soon as the real class forces within society come into conflict with each other this rehashed class collaborationist coalition will break down again. And we are already seeing the first signs of what we can expect in the near future. We have the struggle of the teachers against longer working hours. We have the first conflicts in major industrial plants over wage cuts. The bosses have demanded a delay in wage bargaining in the chemical, paper and electronic industries in order to avoid having to grant wage increases in the coming period.

All this has opened up a process of radicalisation within the unions. And this will have an effect also on the political front. In this period we have the elections for the Chamber of Labour which is dominated by the Social Democrats. The first results that have come in are a clear warning to the SPÖ. The losses of the Social Democratic faction within the Chamber of Labour are severe. In the industrial heartlands of Upper Austria they have lost up to 8 per cent. This will provoke debates with the trade unions as to whether they should cut their links to the government. We will see a clear polarisation between the more militant parts of the movement and those who want to stick to the line of the government.

The coming elections to the European Parliament and to regional parliaments will probably produce further heavy defeats for the SPÖ. This will destabilise the whole government because the rank and file of the SPÖ and especially the trade unionists will start to revolt against the cosy relationship of the party leaders with the Conservatives.

Austria: Spring awakening in Vienna – 15.000 march against the crisis

March 28 demonstration

This is the economic and political background to the March 28 demonstration organised under the slogan “we will not pay for your crisis”. The Marxist Tendency of “Der Funke” had raised the idea of such a demonstration back in October 2008. And we were the first ones to raise the slogan “we will not pay for your crisis” arguing that this – if taken to its logical conclusion – means that we have to make capitalism history. Around this slogan we have worked to organise strikes of the school students against the crisis and in solidarity with the teachers in their struggle against longer working hours. In Vorarlberg more than 1000 students participated in a very militant demonstration. On April 2, there will also be student strikes in Linz and Vienna.

Austria: Spring awakening in Vienna – 15.000 march against the crisisWe have consistently argued our case that Austria will be hit by the crisis and therefore it should also be part of what “Die Presse” calls the international “recession revolt”. For months no relevant force within the left was prepared to support this idea. Pessimism ruled in most left wing circles. Only when the World Social Form decided to call for an international day of action on March 28 did ATTAC also take up the initiative for such a demonstration, calling for a meeting to organise a first protest against the crisis. At this meeting more than 35 organisations were present. The big absentees were the trade unions. The ÖGB even went as far as sending a letter to ATTAC saying that they would not support the demonstration, adding that if they called off the demonstration and organised some “creative” protests than they would reconsider the whole matter. This was a clear attempt to derail the whole project. ATTAC was actually prepared to agree to this proposal by the ÖGB but the overwhelming majority of the other organisations voted in favour of a demonstration.

In less then one month an impressive alliance to mobilise for March 28 was built. In the end more than 200 organisations signed the appeal. Marxist shop stewards launched an initiative within the unions to build support for the demonstration. In the beginning the bureaucracy tried to avoid supporting the demonstration. Only in the last two weeks did things change. The GPA-djp (printers, white collar workers, journalists) and then the VIDA (railway workers and tourism workers) came out in support of the demonstration. And on March 27 the ÖGB, through its website, was finally forced to call for support for the demo. We can imagine that there must have been some harsh debates within the unions on this issue but in the end the bureaucracy had to give up their resistance. It is obvious that many shop stewards and activists had come out in support of the demonstration and had put pressure on their leaders. Nevertheless the union leaders did everything in their power to minimise mobilisation as much as possible.

“Der Funke” put all its energy and resources into the mobilisation for March 28. We did not support the official appeal written by ATTAC because of its openly reformist line and produced our own flyers and posters with a clear socialist programme. Our comrades distributed some 15,000 flyers, 3000 stickers and fly-posted 1500 posters around important factories and workplaces, universities, schools and public places. Moreover we played an important role in mobilising parts of the Socialist Youth and several trade unionists.

Der Funke block at the demonstration
Der Funke block at the demonstration

This work paid off in the end. The demonstration was a big success. 15000 people came on to the streets to show their protest in a very creative way. Several trade union delegations, the Socialist Youth with a very strong bloc, ATTAC, Catholic workers’ organisations, university students, migrant workers’ organisations, all joined the protest. In the bloc of the Marxist Tendency, shop stewards and trade union activists (postal, social and health sector workers, teachers) marched together with school students and university students and Young Socialists. With our slogans and a very loud and visible presence we became a point of attraction for many other people.

Christian Kenndler, a well known trade union activist, postal worker shop steward and active supporter of the Marxist Tendency, made it very clear that the role of the trade unions is to prepare for the future struggles.
Christian Kenndler, a well known trade union activist, postal worker shop steward and active supporter of the Marxist Tendency, made it very clear that the role of the trade unions is to prepare for the future struggles.

At the final rally in front of parliament Christian Kenndler, a well known trade union activist, postal worker shop steward and active supporter of the Marxist Tendency, was one of the main speakers. In his speech he outlined the situation in the postal service where management wants to cut and outsource thousands of jobs and close 300 post offices. He made it very clear that the role of the trade unions is to prepare for the future struggles. He said that the workers cannot leave their unions to the top leaders. The workers can only stop attacks on working conditions and living standards if they transform the unions into democratic and fighting organisations. He stated clearly that, “today there could be tens of thousands of people more if the ÖGB had mobilised with all its force.” He ended his speech by appealing to the demonstrators to fight for socialism.

This demonstration was without doubt a big step forward in building a strong anti-capitalist movement. The alliance built around March 28 will continue. This demonstration will not be the last. In future protest actions we have to make sure that the unions mobilise all their forces. The Marxists will concentrate their forces in building strong links within the schools, the universities, the workplaces and the organisations of the labour movement, beginning with the trade unions. March 28 will be seen as a turning point for the Austrian Left and the labour movement as a whole. The Marxist Tendency will emerge from this movement much more strengthened and this is essential to fight back against the bosses’ offensive.

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Picture and video gallery

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