Austria: Spring awakening (Part Two) – 60,000 school students on the streets all over the country

Last Friday all over Austria more than 60,000 school students protested against the cancelling of five holidays and demanded an increase in spending on the public education system. This is the biggest school student movement in the history of Austria.


During last December and January a series of articles appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit titled "Youth in turmoil". One could read that the students in Italy had demonstrated on the streets together with workers, students in France had protested against the education reform and the youth of Greece was taking part in a massive rebellion that had shaken the country. The article about Austria, however, was titled "Right-wing, but not radical" and it stated that, "In Austria the youth is not protesting on the streets, but in the polling booths." The author was referring to the last general election in September 2008, when the two right-wing parties, the FPÖ and BZÖ, received together just under 30%. Among the young voters they won as much as 43%.

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.

At that time we explained that the reason for this, far from being a shift to the right among workers and youth, was the lack of an alternative on the part of the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, the SPÖ, and the trade unions. The problem in fact is not that they pose no serious alternative; the problem is that the SPÖ leaders are actually in bed with the Conservative Party and the Confederation of Industrialists, and are implementing policies for the capitalists and big business. The right-wing parties do at least address the problems and issues concerning ordinary people. Their "solutions", however, are another matter altogether and are totally reactionary, such as blaming immigrants for all the problems, rather than accepting that the problems flow from the crisis of the capitalist system itself.

When we looked at the political and economic situation in Austria back in January and compared it, for example to that of Greece, we found that similar conditions that had led to the massive youth protests and several general strikes were present in this country as well.

In March of this year about 270,000 people, or around 7.5 %, were unemployed. In a year-on-year comparison that's an increase of 28.8%. Among the youth (15-24 year-olds) the figure rose by 39.3% to 44.085. About 40,000 workers are on short time work. Industrial output has fallen by 10%. The car sector has been massively affected due to the international crisis of overproduction in this industry.

The newspapers are full of gloomy forecasts. For example in some front-page articles in the newspaper Der Standard last weekend there were two that were quite striking. One article mentioned that Gabi Burgstaller, the governor of the state of Salzburg, feared social riots would break out because workers are fed up of losing their jobs as a result of the "collapsed insanity".

The other one said that the four biggest banks in Austria are on the verge of collapse. Since the fall of the "Iron Curtain", Austrian banks have been heavily involved in investing in Eastern Europe. Hitherto 300 billion Euros have been "assessed" in this region, the bulk in the form of allocation of credit. Raiffeisen International and Erste Bank alone are involved in this "Eastern Europe business" with 230 billion Euros. That sum amounts to 70% of GDP. If one adds Bank Austria (which is part of the Italian UniCredit) and BA-CA one reaches the amazing figure of more than 100% of economic output. Now as a consequence of the international economic crisis Eastern European countries are in big trouble (to say the least) and are having severe problems in paying back these credits.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and professor at the London School of Economics, said recently that after Iceland and Ireland, Austria is the third most likely country to face bankruptcy as a result of the present crisis. Also, according to a recently published report by the ratings agency Moody's, "the Austrian banking system is most exposed as Eastern Europe accounts for nearly half of Austria's global bank claims." At one stroke Austria could be classified as "poor" in Europe.

But even without this worst-case scenario the consequences of the crisis are clearly perceptible. The 100 billion Euro banking rescue package, a protection vaccination as the boss of the National Bank Nowotny has put it, will not solve the problem. It may at best alleviate the situation for a few moments, but in the long run it will only aggravate problems for the future. You cannot cure cancer with an aspirin.

The SPÖ and the trade union federation ÖGB are not seriously interested in anything that could shake - not even touch - the very foundations of the market economy. SPÖ leader Werner Faymann in the discussion on whether the exorbitant salaries of manager should be restricted said that these "are regulated by the market." On the question of short time work the leaders of the ÖGB backed down in favour of the Confederation of Industrialists (IV). The trade unions are accepting the implementation by the present grand coalition government of cuts in every department, especially in education, and dropped the demand for more money for health insurance funds. In the conflict over the closure of 293 post offices Faymann is on the side of the profits of the board of managers rather than that of the workers and customers.

Appetite comes with the eating, as the saying goes, and the capitalists are hungry for more! In addition to further tax concessions, IV is demanding state credits, "further flexibilisation of working hours, emergency collective bargaining agreements along the lines of the Swedish example, and that the decision about working hours should be taken on plant level along the lines of the Danish example." And of course there should be no wage increases in the next round of wage negotiations, which would in fact be a wage cut if you take inflation into consideration. A lot of bourgeois would like to see the collective bargaining agreements as a thing of the past.

Every concession and every retreat emboldens the capitalists even more. The logic of Faymann and Foglar (the chairman of ÖGB) that workers and entrepreneurs are sitting in the same boat and have to row together against the crisis is fatal. More and more layers within the working class are starting to see the Social Democracy no longer as their mouthpiece and are starting to seek alternatives. In the recent state elections the SPÖ suffered big losses. The situation of workers and youth will not improve because of Faymann's constant smiles, permanent compromises and the attempts to whitewash everything. But they cannot always hold down the lid of the pressure cooker in the workplaces. Militant trade union activists will start to get an echo when they raise the demand for an organized fight back. Workers will turn to their trade unions as their only form of defence and in the process will try to change them into instruments of struggle.

Students are fighting back

Last Friday all over Austria more than 60,000 school students protested against the cancelling of five holidays and demanded an increase in spending on the public education system. This is the biggest school student movement in the history of Austria.

Student strike on April 24 in Linz
Student strike on April 24 in Linz

There was a taste of revolution in the air. Some 25,000 students took over the inner city of Vienna. This was more than just a mere demonstration; it was like one big joyful party mixed up with hatred and rage against the government. A powerful mass of students marched from Stephansplatz to Parliament and from there on to the building of the Ministry of Education. It seemed that nobody could stop it; no organisation could really lead the whole thing.

Austria has never seen such a spontaneous movement with so much self-initiative. Many students came with their own banners and placards, some even hand handwritten leaflets with them. The strike appeal spread quickly via text messages, e-mails and word-of-mouth advertising. But it was not only in Vienna that the schools were empty on Friday. In Linz 15,000 came out on the streets, 8000 in Salzburg, 3500 in Dornbirn (Vorarlberg), even in many small towns in the province students organised demonstrations. In total at least 60,000 took part in the different demonstrations across the country.

This eruption of anger was preceded by several student strikes over the last few weeks. The movement was sparked off in Vorarlberg where the Marxist-led Socialist Youth called for a student strike on March 18 in solidarity with the teachers struggle against a lengthening of their working week. The slogan of that strike was "We will not pay for your crisis" and it had a clear anti-capitalist orientation. The success of that strike with more than 1500 students on the streets of Dornbirn was an inspiration to students in other parts of the country. It was followed on April 2 with demonstrations of more than 1000 students in both Vienna and Linz protesting against the education policy of the government. "Money for the schools not for the banks" was one of the demands of the students. Again the Marxist tendency of "Der Funke" played a crucial role in organising these strikes, as for example in Linz where we were the only ones calling for this strike.

Student strike on April 24 in Vorarlberg
Student strike on April 24 in Vorarlberg

These strikes brought out the potential for a bigger movement. Up to this point the big student organisations and the national leadership of the Socialist Youth remained passive. Especially the Social Democratic youth organisations were not prepared to organise a movement against the "red" Ministry of Education. However, the fact that an increasing number of Socialist Youth rank and file activists were participating in the movement eventually forced them to do something once schools resumed after the Easter holidays. One day before the debate on the 2009/2010 federal budget in parliament a national student strike was organised to demand an increase in spending on the education system and a real reform of the school system in the interest of the students.

The government's new budget plans to massively cut spending on education, although the grand coalition took office with a promise to start an "education offensive". Education minister Claudia Schmied recently demanded that teachers should work two more hours per week - without extra pay. The teachers should give away two hours per week from their spare time to help the government keep spending within the budget. But why should the teachers pay for the crisis? This measure would mean the destruction of thousands of jobs, especially for young teachers, who are already worried about becoming unemployed.

Threatened by a national day of action of the teachers, in the end the government gave up on its plans to increase the working week of the teachers. This was an important victory for the teachers' union, and it provided an example that showed that it is possible to defend the interests of working people through militant action.

The teachers' union is traditionally dominated by the Christian Democrats; its leadership is very much linked to the conservative People's Party. So it is no surprise that in the end the union leaders accepted the argument of the government that the teachers have to pay for the crisis. Apart from the cancelling of the extra pay for administrative work, etc., the teachers' union came up with the proposal to eliminate the five "autonomous school days", holidays that every school can decide on when to use them. With this measure the teachers' union was making a kind of symbolic concession to so-called "public opinion" that teachers should work longer hours. The government accepted this proposal, thinking that it had thus reached a compromise with the union that would prevent a big strike movement.

Thus, the ministry was optimistic that it would be able to continue with its agenda. However, they were in for a big surprise. Far from preventing a movement, this compromise was the last straw which gave the whole situation among the school students an explosive character.

'Money for education, not for banks'
'Money for education, not for banks'

Superficially this massive outburst of anger is linked to the question of defending holidays. However, the April 24 demonstrations were much more than this. It is the protest of a generation of young people who can see that they have no real perspective in life, that nobody is interested in their opinions, a generation that is fed up with having no real democratic rights.

In the days before the strike the bourgeois mass media tried to threaten the students with the idea that they would get bad marks and suffer terrible "consequences", and headmasters threatened school students with the police. But this had no effect on the students, and could not stop the movement from growing ‑ on the contrary!

Already the earlier strikes had revealed a new radicalisation taking place among the students. Anti-capitalist and revolutionary slogans were extremely popular on the demonstrations. There have never been so many students participating in such strikes who are also prepared to get active in politics. In Vorarlberg dozens of students have already joined the Socialist Youth and are forming new branches. In Vienna and Linz dozens of young people signed up to the contact sheets of "Der Funke" and want to get active.

The Marxists of "Der Funke" have raised the idea that the movement must now continue. The government so far has not been prepared to make any further concessions and is hoping that these massive strikes are just a flash in the pan. Now the movement has to prove its determination. A victory is possible on condition that it can increase the pressure on the government. This will only be possible if the movement develops appropriate forms of organisation. The first strikes have been relatively spontaneous. Within a very short time these massive mobilisations have been possible. The next step to really win this battle is to get organised in the schools. In every school action committees should be formed to prepare the next strike. Moreover these committees should be linked on a regional and a national scale. The Marxists will give an example by organising such committees and regional student congresses in Vorarlberg, Linz and Vienna. It is the task and the duty of the Socialist Youth to do the same in all the regions and nationally.

The question of defending our holidays has to be linked to the demand for an increase in spending on education and for a school reform (smaller classes, no social selection, etc.). Our main slogan has to be that we will not pay for the capitalist crisis by any means and that we have to make the bosses pay. But these demands can only be achieved by linking the student movement to the working class and to the struggles between the trade unions and the bosses to defend wages and living standards of working class people.

Our perspective should be for a national day of action of all sectors being hit by the crisis. In the next few weeks we could see important strikes of the printers and the chemical workers against wage cuts. Within the unions and the SPÖ an open debate has erupted over the introduction of a property tax. There is an important ferment going on within the ranks of the labour movement. The student movement can play an important role in push forward the working class. The Marxist tendency will play an active role in fighting for such a perspective among the students.


More pictures from Vorarlberg

on the Website of Socialist Youth Vorarlberg

More pictures from demonstration in Linz

Videos from demonstration in Linz

Demonstration in Salzburg

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