Austria one year after Haider

One year ago a shock wave went through Western Europe with the coming to power of the coalition government of the OVP and FPO in Austria. A lot has happened since then. Herbert Bartik of the Austrian Marxist journal 'Der Funk' was interviewed by Filip Staes of the editorial board of Vonk (Belgian Marxist paper).

One year ago a shock wave went through Western Europe with the coming to power of the coalition government of the OVP and FPO in Austria. A lot has happened since then. Herbert Bartik of the Austrian Marxist journal 'Der Funk' was interviewed by Filip Staes of the editorial board of Vonk (Belgian Marxist paper).

Are there still regular protests taking place against the 'schwartz-blau' government (coalition government of the OVP and FPO) and its policies or has the movement died down?

There is still resistance although it has become quite weak in most cases. The movement that started after the inauguration of the government lasted quite a long time. Big demonstrations of 5,000 to 15,000 people regularly took place for more than two months. There was an exceptionally big demonstration on May 1st of more than 100,000 people in Vienna, three times as many as in the previous years.

The point is that this movement never had a clear perspective. There was a general feeling of shock that something like this could have happened, that the Freedom Party could get 30% of the votes and enter the government. A lot of people remembered Fascism and there was a general idea of 'Never again'. But there was no political alternative. The leaders of the trade unions and the SPO Socialist Party of Austria) did everything to prevent the development of such a political alternative. The trade union bureaucracy prevented the unions from mobilising. That explains why there is not much left of the original movement against 'schwartz-blau'. There are still weekly demonstrations in Vienna, but in general, no more than 500 people show up.

Actually all of us were surprised at the spontaneity of the movement: 20,000 people (lots of trade union members) demonstrated during the inauguration of the government. There was a big demonstration in February with about 300,000 people present, of which 40,000 were trade union members. There were also demonstrations in Belgium, France and so on. The important thing to understand is that certain layers of the working class and youth have learnt an important lesson. 'Never again' is not just a slogan for them. They experienced it in February and March. And also internationally it was very much alive. Some of the reactions were a little exaggerated of course, but there was a clear determination on the part of working class people and youth throughout Europe not to let extreme-right wing or Fascist politicians become part of any kind of government.

During these turbulent days some changes took place inside the SPO (Socialist Party of Austria). It was the rank and file union members that had actually prevented the SPO leaders from entering a coalition with the OVP again. Has this lead to any actual changes in the policies of the party, apart from the fact that a new so called 'more left-wing' chairman was elected?

The party didn't move to the left. The new chairman of the SPO used to be the chairman of the SJ (Young Socialists) in the 1980s and a sympathiser of the Stalinist wing. There is even a story that when he went to Moscow he kissed the ground when he got off the plane.

The old leadership was openly bourgeois. They tried to apply the same policies as Blair and Schroder. These openly bourgeois elements were replaced by people from the party apparatus. The so called modernizers have been replaced by right-wing bureaucrats. The new chairman, is an example of this. There was no move to the left whatsoever. The party is as empty as before. Although this wasn't the case immediately after the new government took office. There was a lot of discussion in different party branches. Regarding the membership, there were some new members coming in, at least a couple of hundred in Vienna alone. Also the May day demonstrations, as I said, showed the potential that was there. But the party leadership managed to stop this from becoming a movement for a real political alternative. Now there is a lot of disillusionment in the party, 'there is nothing we can do, no political alternative we can put forward against this government'. That is the general mood in the party right now.

Has there been any effect on the youth organisation (SJ) of the SPO?

In the SJ there are changes taking place. At the last congress in September a new leadership was elected and the new chairman is a left reformist. Before that the 'modernizers' had a majority in the SJ, but they were defeated. Now it is also possible that the left wing will also get a majority in Vienna which is a traditional stronghold of the right-wing. For the first time since I joined the SJ in 1994, there are branches really starting to participate in the workers movement, going to demonstrations etc. We can see a new layer of activists emerging with a different attitude. Although it is not large scale or generalised, I think it shows that the beginning of a change is taking place inside this organisation.

Do the youth in general know about the experience of the 1930s? Is this tradition still alive? Have the lessons of that period been understood by wide layers or are there rather widespread illusions in ideas like the People's Front and so on?

There are all kinds of ideas. It's not that the People's Front is a formulated concept. There is a certain layer of youth that says that Haider is a Fascist and his party is a Fascist party. Many young people didn't really understand the true nature of this party and so they thought the Fascists were taking power again and that this had to be stopped. Right now there is also a lot of discussion about the role of Austria during the Second World War. Was Austria the first victim of fascism or was Austria mainly responsible for fascism? This is a constant discussion amongst the youth. The more advanced layers discuss about these issues. It is also present in the labour movement itself. For instance there is discussion on the comparison between the situation now and that at the beginning of the 1930s when the Austro-fascists were attacking the labour movement and the Social Democracy which finally resulted in a fascist regime coming to power. The 12th February 1934 the fascists took power through a coup, and the SPO and the trade unions where outlawed. On the 12th of February this year there were a lot of meetings and discussions all over Austria to discuss the similarities between the present situation and that of the 1930s.

Has there been an increase in student protests against the policies of the government?

There was a significant school student strike, already in February of last year. The important thing about this strike is that it was a political strike, it wasn't related to any kind of issues involving the conditions at school or cuts in education. It was directed against the government. There was a one day strike, and in Vienna a demonstration of about 10,000 people, although the headmasters of the schools tried to prevent the students from striking and taking part in demonstrations. It was a very clear expression of the mood among the school students.

In Autumn fees were introduced in the universities. You would expect to have at least some resistance against this, because in Austria it is generally accepted that education is supposed to be free. In fact there has been the same process taking place in the universities as in the trade unions. In the last week of September, when the universities hadn't started back yet (the academic year starts in October), we distributed leaflets in front of the university. There was a very interesting mood. A lot of people thought the introduction of fees was unacceptable and wanted to do something. So we started agitating for a strike.

The student representatives on the other hand, also those of the Socialist and Communist student federations, were just playing for time. They wanted to prevent a strike from taking place at any cost. They wanted to wait before calling a meeting to discuss the matter because the schools hadn't started back yet and the following week there would be more people. Then they actually formed a coalition with the conservative student union and did not even put forward their own programme. It was an absolute disaster and they managed to completely demoralise the students. There was a demonstration on the 15th October with 50,000 people in Vienna but that's about it. Afterwards there were no further actions taken or meetings organised to discuss strike action or anything else. At the end of the demonstration there was only music.

The result of all this is that now students have to pay a fee to enter university. Again a very good example of how a bureaucratic machine works. The first thing they always do is to play for time. When there is anger and a demand to do something they can't stop the movement if they allow people to express their ideas in meetings. So they just don't allow meetings to take place. They knew that after two or three weeks this mood would die down, and people would then reach the conclusion that there is nothing to be done about it. The most cynical aspect is that a month or so later some of these student federations finally organised meetings on this new law. Nobody came and then they used this to say that nobody is interested in doing anything about it and that students aren't interested in politics and so on. They have learnt a lot from the trade union bureaucracy!

What has actually changed in the past year for working class people?

The main aim of the government is to reduce the deficit in the budget to zero by 2002. There have been three major series of cuts in the social security system: attacks on pensions, cuts in unemployment benefits, introduction of tuition fees in universities. They are eager to privatise what is left of the old state industries and they are pushing this very strongly. And there are a lot of other things too. What we have seen in the last year amounts to a major attack on the working class.

Did it make people get more involved in the labour movement, for instance, did the number of strikes increase as a result of all this?

They did increase, but they had been at an extremely low level for some years. In 1998 and 1999 there had been no strikes at all. So compared to that the number of strikes has gone up, but not to the level that would have been necessary. There was a strike of the railway workers at the beginning of June, mainly directed against the cuts in the pension system, but to be honest it was kind of a joke. It was supposed to be a national day of action, but in reality it was reduced to bureaucrats handing out leaflets on the streets plus a one hour strike on the railways. This strike, as always, was used by the trade union leadership, not to mobilise the workers, but to demobilise them. Their message is that they will take care of it and the workers better stay at their workplace and don't bother to much. It ended in a disaster, they couldn't prevent the cuts in the pension system.

There is a much more positive development now among the teachers. In October the government introduced more cuts in the education system, mainly directed against the teachers. In the past three years an opposition has been forming inside the teachers' union, a union which is still dominated by the conservative wing. This opposition grew so strong last year that it forced the leadership to call a one day strike on the 5th December. This action obviously had a very different character to that of the railway workers' union. It came from the pressure that had built up from below and was much more militant. It is too early to say how this is going to work out, because negotiations are still going on between the trade union representatives and the government. There is a layer among the teachers that has stated quite clearly that they won't accept anything that does not meet their demands. That is a positive development in the situation, because it is the first time in years that all the anger and frustration has not just been dissipated, but has been turned into a higher form of consciousness which has led people to organise and build up resistance to the trade union leadership. In the previous period the tendency was for people to get demoralised and leave the union.

A common explanation for the failure of the Austrian labour movement to mobilise against all these cuts is that it is due to the "mentality" of the trade unions. But this is not true. The real explanation is to be found in the shameful role of the trade union leadership.

In February and March of last year there was a kind of sigh of relief among the rank and file of the trade union movement because the SPO was no longer a part of the coalition government. They thought this would make it easier to say what they really thought and thus they would be able act in the interest of working people. They wanted to go on to the offensive. That was the general mood at least among the advanced layers in the trade union movement. They were waiting for a signal from the trade union leaders to do something, but the leadership was more concerned in getting everyone back to work!

What perspectives do you have for the coming period?

For the moment the government has gained some sort of stability, although there are some contradictions between the FPO and the OVP. The FPO also lost quite a lot of votes in the local elections which shook their confidence and caused some internal problems in the party. The OVP are actually doing very well. They gained in the polls. It is quite likely that the government will last its full term. I think the economic boom was to the advantage of the government and this had an effect on the level of any social movements. The economy grew by 3.5%, a lot more than in the previous years. In these conditions the bourgeoisie didn't feel the need to immediately go on the offensive against the working class. They didn't attack collective bargaining or legislation concerning rights in the workplace, the working week and so on. They didn't want to run the risk of provoking a strike movement, especially as the economic situation did not call for such action. This will change of course, once the economy starts to slow down and the bourgeoisie sees itself forced to take such measures.

The government is now on the ideological offensive. For instance, they opened up a discussion on abortion rights. Abortion has been more or less legal since the middle of the 1970s. In general the right to abortion is accepted by the majority of the Austrian population, but the government recently started to attack it. They say that abortion is not only the right of women, but that the whole family should be able to decide. This is a clear indication of a turn towards reactionary ideology on this front. This will be one of the main issues in the coming months.

The local elections in Vienna, which will take place on the 25th March, will also be an important event. We expect the Freedom Party to launch a very aggressive election campaign, mainly on issues such as immigration and drugs. They will try to make up for the losses they recently suffered in other local elections with an extremely aggressive, racist and nationalist campaign.

Why is the FPO losing votes in the local elections?

I think a lot of people have become disillusioned with them. The 30% that voted for the Freedom Party mainly did so as a protest against the old SPO-OVP coalition. These people really hoped that things would change with the Freedom Party in government. Things obviously did change, but for the worse. Especially those workers who voted for them have discovered that their policies are no better than those of the other parties. There have been local elections in two regions since the general elections. In these local elections, so far, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of people abstaining, mainly among those who voted for the Freedom Party last time. The SPO is not seen as a real option, because the leaders of the party are not offering any real alternative. That explains why the Freedom Party has been losing votes: people just stay at. In Vienna we also expect them to lose votes. They also can feel this and that is one of the reasons why we think that they will carry out a very aggressive campaign.

After the general elections polls were carried out discover the reasons people gave for voting for the Freedom Party. Problems with immigrants or refugees and such like came only 4th or 5th in the list of issues concerning people who voted for Haider's party. The first issues worrying them were social and economic. Of course, the very backward elements will be attracted by a racist campaign. However, it is not so much their racist policies that brought success to the Freedom Party. It was their social demagogy and anti-establishment image that attracted voters to them.

It would be wrong, however, to say that now the Freedom Party or the government as a whole are in crisis. As long as there is no clear alternative and the Social Democracy remains under its present leadership, it is possible to maintain a kind of stability. For the first time in 30 years the conservatives and bourgeoisie have the Chancellor. They are full of confidence and that puts them in strong position for now. Their policies of reducing the budget deficit, privatisation, modernisation of the state apparatus, etc., are actually quite popular. People think they have to accept all because there is no alternative. After all, this is what the Social Democracy has been telling them for the past 15 years or so (and they still say this to this very day), so it is hard for people to see what they can struggle for. All the political parties agree that these cuts are necessary, so in general, people think there is no other way out. The people don't like what is being done, but they accept it passively and that is why the government has managed to achieve some form of stability. As long as the trade union movement does not begin to mobilise the workers against these cuts and as long as there isn't any significant opposition inside the Social Democracy putting forward an alternative programme, this won't radically change. The government will probably be able to complete its term of office without major problems and it is even very likely that it will be re-elected.

Isn't it more likely that the next government will be another OVP-SPO coalition?

For the moment I don't think so. It depends on the development of events, of course. At the moment the bourgeoisie is very happy with this government. They are managing to carry out the same policies as they did with the Social Democracy in the government. If they maintain a majority in parliament after the elections, I think it is quite likely that they will form another coalition with the Freedom Party. Also, it wouldn't be so easy for the leadership of the Social Democracy to form a coalition with the Conservatives again. There would be much more resistance to that in the party ranks, especially in the trade unions. The aim of the Social Democratic leaders now is mainly a red-green coalition, but it is not likely that they will achieve this.

Is there a Green Party of any significant size in Austria?

There is. They have a little over 10% of the votes in Vienna. In Vienna it is very likely that there will be a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed after the local elections. Nation-wide they have more or less 7% of the votes and in recent polls they have been getting around 10%. They are the party that has gained most in the polls since the Freedom Party entered the government. Not because they have any real alternative, but more because they are seen as "good people" who oppose racist policies, etc.

How is the trade union movement structured in Austria? How is it organised?

Basically there is one union federation, the OGB, like the TUC in Britain. On the other hand it is also very different, mainly because in Austria the political parties have their own factions in the OGB. The Social Democratic faction is the strongest, about 65% to 70%. The Conservative faction controls the civil servants' union which is also affiliated to the Conservative party. There is also a smaller faction linked to the Communist Party, which has some influence among the Railway workers. There are also some independent unions who were affiliated to the Green Party, but have now split off. They have some influence especially amongst the teachers, and are in general quite militant. There is also a faction of the Freedom Party. They did set up their own trade union in 1998, separate from the OGB, but it proved to be a complete failure. Their aim was to recruit 100,000 members. About eighteen months ago they claimed to have something like 10,000, but in reality they had a lot less than that. Now they no longer raise the issue. They still have a faction in the main federation, the OGB, but it is very small, only around 2% or so. This also reveals that they don't really have a social base. It is the Social Democratic faction that is the dominant force inside the OGB and basically decides on policy.

Austria had always been famous for it's system of social partnership. It was a special form of social partnership, with the integration of the trade union bureaucracy into the bourgeois state. One of the government's aims now is to attack this social partnership. Although the establishment needed to integrate the labour movement into the bourgeois system, now they want to remove the trade unions from taking part in certain decisions. They have been attacking social partnership and it has been extremely weakened now. In actual fact the trade union leadership is so corrupt and has degenerated to such a degree, that it poses no opposition to this. They seem to be happy with the fact that their role has now been reduced.

Do the unions still have a lot of members?

The OGB has 1.5 million members out of a population of about 8 million. There are still a lot of people in the unions. About 40% are organised although this is going down. Potentially the Austrian workers' movement is very strong, especially in sections like the railway workers, steelworkers etc. On the railways 90% of the workers are unionised. That would actually be a dream come true if it were linked with a correct programme. The potential is there, but for obvious reasons the membership is decreasing. Of course there is also casual labour and new kinds of contracts which the unions claim they can't organise. The average age of the trade union members is actually quite old. In fact about 200,000 members are actually pensioners, retired from work. And it isn't easy to mobilise when you are no longer active at your workplace.

The main problem, however, is that due to the policies of the leadership the trade unions are less and less able to organise young workers and get them into the movement. That is where the potential for building a big, strong union lies.

(February 2001)