Austria: successful student strikes for free education

On Wednesday October 19 the “Action Committees for Free Education” organised successful school student strikes in Vienna, Linz, Wels and Vorarlberg. The strikes were a success and clearly show that the youth movement against the education policy of the government is moving forward.
On Wednesday October 19 the “Action Committees for Free Education” organised successful school student strikes in Vienna, Linz, Wels and Vorarlberg. The strikes were a success and clearly show that the youth movement against the education policy of the government is moving forward.

As we reported in a previous article the right-wing government has taken another step in its policy of “reforming” the education system against the interests of the absolute majority of young people. The universities, after having suffered enormous cuts in their budgets, now have the right to select students for some of the most popular subjects such as medicine, economics, psychology etc. However this is only the beginning. The bourgeois has already opened up a discussion on extending these methods of selection to all subjects within the next two years. Moreover, they are also openly discussing further increases in university fees. Their policy is clearly aimed at creating elite universities. High quality education will then become a privilege for students from rich families while the mass of students will have to study under more and more difficult conditions in public universities. This is the most severe attack on our right to education in living memory in this country.

Since the beginning of this school year the Marxist tendency Der Funke has been organizing a campaign to fight for the right to free education. In dozens of schools all over the country action committees have been built to organise this struggle and to mobilise for a national strike movement. Wherever we raised the idea of an all-out mobilisation, students were prepared to get involved. This was especially the case in Vorarlberg, where the Marxist tendency is leading the Socialist Youth, and where this campaign has been very successful. We were able to sink roots into nearly every school in this conservative region. We also got excellent results in Linz and Vienna.

From the beginning we could see that the mood of the students was in favour of a big students’ movement. Although the law restricting the number of students at the universities had already been passed during the summer holidays, most of the students saw the necessity to fight for their rights. Nevertheless, in the course of building this movement we had to overcome many obstacles. Against the mood among the students the traditional left-wing youth and student organisations argued that the conditions for a big movement were not present. Until this today they have not been prepared to call for strikes and demos. On several occasions they openly sabotaged the campaign for the school students’ strike on October 19 and in reality they have split the movement. On the last day before the strike, the official school students’ organization in Vienna even sent a letter to the schools stating that students should not participate in the strike because it had been organised by “ultra-left and violent groups”.

The campaign for a strike

The action committees went ahead all the same and mobilised for the strike on October 19. It is important to note that the traditional left-wing youth organisations such as the Socialist Youth and its student organisation AKS had initially proposed this date. They then changed their minds when they saw that a movement was building up in the schools which was not under their control.

The action committees are a model of self-organisation. They organised the mobilisation in the schools and informed their classmates and teachers. This campaign shows how creative and enthusiastic the youth can be. The most conscious elements of the students organised themselves in these committees despite the slander and sabotage of the reformists.

On October 7 the action committees held conferences in Vienna, Linz and Dornbirn (Vorarlberg) to plan the next steps of the mobilisation and to formulate the political demands of the movement. This was an important step in coordinating the committees and to build a real network. At these conferences the students elected a coordinating committee responsible for the organisation of the strike, for press contacts etc.

In the last two weeks leading up to the strike some 10,000 flyers were distributed in Vienna alone. One could see posters calling for the student strike across the entire city. It was similar in other towns and cities. In many cases we had to deal with sabotage. In some schools the headmasters themselves personally pulled down the posters and unfortunately even some of the reformists followed this example.

The strike

In these conditions and facing the sabotage of the headmasters and reformists many activists became pessimistic. Nevertheless the mobilisation plans for the strike were put into action. On the morning of Wednesday October 19, dozens of supporters of the Marxist tendency went to the schools to distribute flyers and to gather support for the strike.

The turnout at the demos was a big reward for the amount of work that went into this enormous campaign. The first demonstrations took place in Vorarlberg. In some schools the repression of the headmasters prevented many from participating. In Dornbirn several hundred school students gathered at the main station and then marched to the centre of town. When they passed one of the high schools a small group of students on the demonstration entered the schools to convince some of these students to join the march. Filled with enthusiasm, nearly the whole demo ran into the school! When they emerged again some 200 students from the school had joined them and strengthened the strike. This reflected the excellent mood of the demo.

It was the same in Wels (Upper Austria). There have been no student mobilisations for years in this town. One comrade of the Marxist tendency began to work on the campaign in September of this year. Within a few days the first action committee had been organised. These activists organised a “strike solidarity concert” together with some sympathetic teachers in the well-known “Schlachthof”. From here the committee sent delegations to the other schools in town. They were able to convince 600 students to join the strike. After the concert and a very militant demonstration they took the train to Linz, the capital of Upper Austria, where they joined with the striking students of Linz.

In the meantime the demonstration in Vienna was also becoming bigger and bigger. At first, Vienna seemed to be our weak point because we had absolutely no support from the traditional left-wing youth organisations, which have their strongholds in the capital. In the end all of our expectations were exceeded. We were able to mobilise 1500-2000 students under very difficult conditions. The demonstration in Vienna was also very militant. The students were singing and chanting slogans against the ministry of education and its policies. We also led the march to the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party. There have been to regional elections in October in which the SP won historic victories. Regional elections will also take place on Sunday in “Red Vienna”. These landslide victories of the SP are seen as the beginning of the end of the right-wing government. The SP is promising an end to the cuts in the education system. Willi Waitz, one of the speakers of the action committees in Vienna and a supporter of Der Funke, stated that we will remember these promises when the Social Democrats actually form the next government. He explained that the SP has to defend the right to free education but that this has to be linked to the general struggle against capitalism and for a socialist programme.

The demonstration then marched to the university. We decided to occupy a big assembly hall  where we could discuss the next steps to take. When we entered the university the students were chanting “Whose University? Ours!”
There were more than 2000 students on the demonstration in Linz where the regional leaders of the Socialist Youth and the AKS supported the strike. This shows what could have been possible if these organisations had supported this campaign wholeheartedly on a national level.

After the demos in Linz and in Dornbirn we called the students to participate in discussions on the perspectives for the youth movement. The Marxist tendency presented a resolution explaining the need to organise the students in the ranks of the labour movement. It was also explained that the common struggle of the youth and the workers could bring about the downfall of the right-wing government. In this resolution the development of the revolutionary process in Venezuela was also discussed. Venezuela is an important example because we can see the expansion of the education system in the interest of the masses. In Linz some 60 students took part in this meeting, and in Dornbirn around 80 students took part. For more than an hour students discussed the political perspectives of the movement, its programme and the need for socialism.

This day of action was an important step towards building a strong youth movement in Austria. The youth organisation of the metal workers’ union is planning a day of action for November 18 against youth unemployment and the attacks on the rights of apprentices. Der Funke has already put forward the idea of a joint mobilisation of apprentices and students against the right-wing government. The Socialist Youth and the AKS have so far taken up this idea and are promising a students’ strike in support of the mobilisation of apprentices. Such a joint day of action with strikes and demos would be an historic event for the Austrian youth movement. Yesterday’s strikes were an important step in this direction because there now exists a significant layer of activists in the schools who will extend these protests.

The Marxist tendency will do its best to build this movement and to fertilize it with the methods and ideas of Marxism.