May Day 2006 in Austria

There is a strong May Day tradition in Austria. This tradition was continued this year as thousands came out to demonstrations across Austria amidst a growing scandal in the trade unions. The movement was determined to show its unity against the attacks of the right wing and there was a thirst for political ideas in the face of great events in Latin America and France.

There is a long tradition of demonstrations and meetings of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) on May Day in Austria. Frederick Engels once said that the whole international labour movement could learn from the spirit of the Austrian comrades in their fight for the 8-hour day.

This strong May Day tradition continued this year when 120,000 working class people participated in the May Day march. Thousands of people came with delegations of the trade unions, local branches and district organisations. After six years of right-wing government the Austrian labour movement is ready to get rid of the conservatives in the coming parliamentary elections in November 2006. As a result of the right-wing policies of privatisation, cuts to the welfare state, attacks on the trade unions, tax increases for the working class etc., there was a significant swing to the SPÖ in the regional elections. The SPÖ is now the dominant political force in two former conservative strongholds, Salzburg and Styria. The only possible outcome of the next election appears to be a defeat for the right-wing parties and a huge victory for the SPÖ.

This is how it looked until a major scandal shook the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB). The SPÖ-dominated ÖGB owns 100% of the fourth largest bank in Austria (the BAWAG, the former “workers’ bank”). The BAWAG itself is an important shareholder in many different enterprises. This economic activity has always been a strong element in enforcing the ÖGB’s orientation of “social partnership”. Scandalous information about the BAWAG has been made public over the last few weeks. The BAWAG took part in currency speculation and lost around 1 billion euro. Moreover, Fritz Verzetnitsch, the president of the ÖGB, allowed the use of the trade union’s funds to guarantee BAWAG’s losses. Besides the President, only the treasurer of the ÖGB knew of this guarantee. Even the members of the ÖGB’s Executive Committee were not aware of these financial transactions.

As one can imagine this scandal has been used by the conservatives as an opportunity to launch a counterattack against the unions and the Social Democracy. For weeks now the labour movement has been on the defensive. Most union and party activists have doubts about whether the SPÖ can win the next elections. There was a widespread feeling of frustration and pessimism at this year’s May Day demonstrations. The cold weather on May 1 this year seemed to underline the dark perspectives for the Austrian labour movement.

However, this is only one side of the coin. The other side is characterised by a questioning of the past policies of the ÖGB. The era of “social partnership” is definitely over, and the unions must change in order to defend the interests of working people. The ÖGB is one of the most centralised unions in all of Europe. Democracy is almost an unknown word in the ÖGB. This was the organisational precondition for “social partnership”. This crisis has opened a debate on the future of the ÖGB. The call for more internal democracy in the union can no longer be neglected. Even high-ranking trade union leaders such as comrade Katzian from the Union of Salaried Employees (GPA) is thinking out loud about the need to “re-found” the ÖGB. The trade unions are now thinking about launching a campaign to organise workers in precarious and insecure jobs (casual workers, part-time workers etc).

Seeing their organisations under attack from the bourgeois parties (with the support of the “neutral” mass media) many rank and file activists wanted to demonstrate that the movement remains united. However, there was much more interest in political ideas than in previous years – not only in the current debate over the future of the trade unions but also on the revolutionary process in Latin America and recent events in France.

The Marxist Tendency Der Funke was present at May Day demos in Vienna, Linz, Graz, Innsbruck, Vorarlberg, Wels, Krems and Grein. In most of these places there were also Hands off Venezuela events. In Linz and Vienna the May Day activities were used as part of the mobilisation for upcoming public meetings with Ruben Linares of the UNT in Venezuela and Aleida Guevara, Che Guevara’s daughter. In Vienna there was a militant Hands off Venezuela bloc at the traditional “Fackelzug” demo of the Young Socialists, which was supported by left-wing activists with Latin American origins.

We also had excellent paper sales. In total more than 600 copies of our paper, Der Funke were sold along with a lot of other political material. We also collected money to finance a seminar hosted by the Marxist Tendency and several branches of the Young Socialists, which will be held at the beginning of June. At this seminar we will be organising the mobilisation against George W. Bush’s visit to Austria later in June. All in all it was an extremely successful May Day for the Marxist Tendency of the Austrian labour movement!