We are publishing an interesting article on the situation that is developing in Austria. The article was written in July but due to the recent technical problems we have had we are publishing it now - August 11th, 2001)
After a wave of protests against the right-wing government at the beginning of last year and the first signs of mobilisation by the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Osterreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, OGB), the coalition government formed by the conservative People's Party and the extreme right-wing Freedom Party was finally able to stabilise its position. This was mainly due to the policy of the leadership of the OGB which tried to prolong its old "social partnership".
The lack of resistance on the part of the unions made it possible for the government to introduce a series of cuts in the welfare state. A pension "reform" now makes workers work 1,5 years longer than before. People now have to pay for medical services. Universities can charge tuition fees worsening the situation of students from working class families, which is a further attack against the idea of an education system open to everybody. A whole series of taxes have been increased which means a further burden for working class families. With the exception of a one-hour strike by the railway workers union, all these attacks were accepted by the union leadership without any struggle. They limited themselves to blaming the government for putting an end to the traditional culture of "social partnership" in Austria, thus threatening social peace.
However, this latest attack could bring about a decisive turn in the whole situation. The government plans to destroy the social insurance system. As a first step it tried to get rid of the president of the social insurance system, Hans Sallmutter, who, by the way, is the chairman of the white collar workers' union (GPA), the biggest single union. Since the Second World War leading bodies of the social insurance system have been dominated by the trade unions. Changing this is a precondition for changing the whole system, which means privatising social insurance.
At the beginning of July the bourgeois parties passed a law in the parliament which changed the president of the social insurance system without consulting the trade unions. This was an open declaration of war on the whole labour movement.
And this time the union leaders finally answered. The OGB called for a mass demonstration on July 5th, bringing 50,000 workers and union activists onto the streets of Vienna. This was the first national demonstration of the OGB since its foundation in 1945. Everybody, including the union bureaucracy, was surprised at this strong turnout. The mood on this demonstration was clear: this could only be the first step! The ex-chairman of the OGB, Anton Benya, expressed what lots of people on the demonstration wanted to hear when he said "we will be back". In the meantime union leaders like Sallmutter himself or the chairman of the big metal workers' union, Nürnberger, even declared themselves ready to call for a general strike if the government does not retreat on this question. Today, the Federal Executive Committee of the OGB voted unanimously in favour of organising a ballot among all union members on the question of further mobilisations. Even the Christian trade unionists support this step. The exact details of the questionnaire will be formulated in the next few weeks. However, this is a historic initiative. For the first time in the history of the Austrian labour movement all members will be able to take part in such a ballot.
Reports in the media with interviews of ordinary workers at the railways, the factories and building sites reveal a clear picture. The Austrian working class is ready to fight. It will be important now to start a campaign for the calling of a general strike as the only weapon by which to stop the vicious plans of this government. Furthermore it will be necessary to fight also within the OGB for the opening up of a democratic debate on the question of how this struggle to defend the public social insurance system should be organised.
The bourgeois itself are obviously afraid of a hot autumn culminating in a general strike. Jorg Haider from the Freedom Party warned of any attempts of the unions to destabilize the country and called for president Klestil to intervene in the situation and to calm the unions.
The union movement has the power to bring this government down. This autumn must become a hot one!