Today (June 3, 2003) Austria is going on strike. It is the biggest strike movement the country has seen for decades. All sections of the Austrian working class will participate in this mobilisation against the pensions reform planned by the right wing government.
In all the big cities and towns, beginning with Vienna, there will be no public transport. The bus, tram and metro drivers will be on strike for 24 hours. No trains will be running in any part of the country. Also the airport workers will be joining in the struggle.
The whole of the public sector will be closed down. No schools, no university, no kindergarten will be open. Even the police are going to refuse to work! All this is happening in spite of the fact that the public sector workers' trade union is led by the conservative Christian faction. This means that an enormous pressure has built up from the rank and file. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain why these conservative trade union leaders did not attempt to split the trade union opposition movement against the government's plans.
Hundreds of factories and workplaces will also be affected in the private sector. Major companies like MAN, BMW, Siemens, Opel, Magna, VOEST and others will come to a standstill.
The trade union that organises the workers in the tourist industry is planning to blockade the entrance of all the major hotels where normally "high society" hangs out. In most of the cities there will also be demonstrations. In Vienna alone we know of some 4-5 demonstrations.
Today's events definitely represent an important step in the development of the class struggle in Austria. The whole situation is characterised by an enormous polarisation between the government and the bosses of the major companies on the one hand and the trade unions on the other hand.
Last week the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) had called for a wave of strikes for Tuesday, May 27. But then to the surprise of everyone the leadership of the ÖGB called off this day of action and declared that it was ready for further negotiations. It seemed that the trade union leaders were about to reach an agreement and carry out a new betrayal. But in spite of the government making a lot of concessions on some important points in the pensions reform they were unable to reach an agreement. At the end of the day, on both sides the hardliners had the majority. According to the media reports, the president of the ÖGB had said he was prepared to sign the new proposals of the government, but several other union leaders told him that these would find no support in the ranks of their unions.
Today we can conclude that the sole purpose of this so-called "round table" organised by the government was to reunite the bourgeoisie. The extreme right wing FPÖ had been threatening to vote against the reform in the decisive parliamentary session. Without their votes chancellor Schüssel would have lost the necessary majority for the procedure in parliament. Moreover, because of his stubborn policy in confronting the trade unions and bringing an end to social peace, many voices within his own conservative Popular Party were criticising the government. There was also the fact that most of the media commentators were raising doubts about the government's policy and were giving positive reports about the struggle of the trade unions.
Schüssel wanted to play for time by inviting the union leaders to participate in new negotiations. With this measure he was able to reorganise the bourgeois forces to relaunch the attack on the trade unions. He never had any intention of finding a compromise with the unions. Even his latest proposal would have reduced pensions by 12%. Under these conditions there was no room for making substantial concessions that the unions could have accepted. The fact is that there can be no such compromise. Two counterposed interests are at stake in this conflict. The government and the capitalists want to destroy the system of public pensions. The working class wants decent pensions. Over this question the different class interests openly come into conflict. There is only one possible outcome. If the trade unions accept a hollow compromise, which in reality would mean a further deterioration of the living conditions of the working class, this would certainly be an invitation to the capitalists and their government to launch further attacks on our rights and our living standards.
The outcome of the struggle against the pensions reform is decisive for the development of the class struggle in Austria. If we prove unable to stop the government's plans the bourgeois will increase the pressure on the working class at all levels. Even now they are planning further privatisations, sackings (among the postal and railway workers) and an extension of the opening hours of the shops and supermarkets etc.
The bosses have understood what is at stake in this conflict. This also explains why the capitalists are reacting in such an aggressive manner to the planned strike action of the ÖGB. The big companies are openly threatening to stop investment or to take the unions and shop stewards to court for economic damages caused by the strike. Also, as the situation heats up, pressure is building up against the trade unions and the strike movement in the bourgeois media. They are openly attacking the ÖGB for acting in an "irresponsible manner".
The leadership of the ÖGB have proved to be very sensitive to this pressure. The railway workers union has called off the strikes in the goods traffic sector because they fear this would inflict too much damages on the railways. At the end of last week big multinationals such as BMW had warned that they depend on the proper functioning of the goods traffic because of their just-in-time production. They threatened that if supplies were not delivered they would cancel their contracts with the railways. Further to this the ÖGB called off most of its planned blockades of the main roads into the big cities.
The leadership of the ÖGB has indeed come under pressure from two sides. On the one hand, in the workplaces and some of the unions (printers, chemical workers, metal workers) the demand for an extension of the strikes and even for a general strike has been raised. On the other there are the threats from the bosses.
The way the ÖGB is organising this mobilisation shows that they are "leading" this struggle only in a half-hearted manner. The rank and file is left uninformed and is supposed to react at the touch of a button by the union apparatus. Obviously some union leaders are afraid that the workers might take the initiative themselves. Once the workers are on the streets it would be difficult to bring them back to the workplaces, as ex-ÖGB-president Benya has actually warned. And some union leaders do not want to fight this out to the end because they are facing the prospect of having to organise more strikes in the autumn against attacks on the workers in their sectors (municipal workers, railway workers).
These methods of the trade union leadership could lead to a defeat without having used the whole force of the working class. Every sign of weakness will encourage the bourgeois. What we need now is decisive action, an extension of the struggle to as many workplaces as possible and the active involvement of the rank and file in organising the strikes. And we must not hide within the workplaces. Like on May13, we have to demonstrate our full strength in real mass demonstrations. Only in this way can we show the government and the capitalists that they cannot succeed in carrying out their policy of attacks on our living standards.
(June 3, 2003)
* The title of an old workers' song.
See the original in German.