Austrian metalworkers defend collective bargaining rights

A bitter conflict over wages and the whole collective bargaining system is developing in the Asutrian metal industry. A report from Der Funke

Last year in Austria the trade unions in the metal industry (PRO-GE and GPA-djp) organised a strike movement which led to a significant pay rise of over 4%. In reaction to this the capitalists announced that they were no longer prepared to sign a collective bargaining agreement for the whole metal industry. They demanded separate negotiations for the six different sectors in the industry (steel, vehicles, engineering, foundries, etc.). With this move they want to weaken the position of the unions, to cut wages and worsen the conditions of 180,000 workers in the coming period.

The unions understood that this was a major attack on their position and called for a national shop stewards conference where several hundred worker representatives voted in favour of a resolution to defend their “holy land“, as one trade union leader called the collective bargaining agreements. The conference was introduced by Rainer Wimmer, the chairman of the PRO-GE, which organizes the blue-collar workers in the metal industry. In his speech he outlined the reasons behind this attack and showed that this has to be seen together with the attacks on collective bargaining all over Europe. He also mentioned the situation in the FIAT plants in Italy. Wimmer is clearly a representative of a new generation of trade unionists having understood that the unions have to fight and to mobilise to get any results. The old form of social partnership only means selling out workers’ interests completely. In this conference a number of militant shop stewards intervened in the debate to criticize those shop stewards who were not prepared to go on strike last year. This year, as they explained, the struggle has to be generalised and has to be more militant.

At the conference the leadership proposed a campaign to prepare the workers for a struggle in the autumn, but in reality this was not done. In the following weeks it became clearer that a section of the trade union bureaucracy was not prepared to fight. In reality they sabotaged the attempts to defend collective bargaining for the whole industry. Already in the summer there were rumours that the union might be prepared to accept the six separate negotiations. Especially some influential shop stewards from the steel industry have made it clear to the leadership that they can accept the splitting up of the collective bargaining agreements. These enterprises have a strong position in the world market, are making huge profits and the shop stewards in these industries feel strong enough to guarantee their workers wages and conditions above those in the smaller factories. They have no interest in going on strike at the moment and are trying to maintain good relations with their management.

The Marxists of Der Funke intervened from day one in this dispute. We warned that this move by some sections of the bureaucracy would make it impossible to defend collective bargaining. We launched a group on Facebook called “Let’s defend the metal workers’ collective bargaining” and immediately got a huge response to our campaign.

In the following weeks we saw a zig-zag-policy on the part of the union leadership, changing course more than once. The decision to accept the splitting up of the collective bargaining agreements, of course, had a demoralising effect, but created also a lot of anger among the more militant sections of shop stewards and workers. The bureaucracy spoke of a necessary “compromise” with the capitalists, because “one could not force them to negotiate with us”. Moreover, this decision was taken without any democratic debate within the organisation.

This week on the National Executive of the PRO-GE this anger was expressed openly and led to another change of course. Rainer Wimmer went public announcing that the unions are still defending “their holy land” and that they are fighting for a significant pay rise (5 per cent). In this meeting obviously he got a majority of the shop stewards backing his strategy.

The slogan of a 5 per cent pay rise is definitely what the workers wanted to hear from the unions. Without struggle it will not be possible to reach this goal. The capitalists want to cut labour costs because they fear a new recession and they want to defend their competitiveness. Their negotiating team is composed of a new generation that has no interest in the social partnership of the past. So the coming negotiations could easily lead to an open conflict between the unions and the capitalists. Then the union bureaucracy would be forced to call for mobilisations. There is no doubt that the metal workers would respond to such a call as they did last year: with strikes which could develop a dynamic well beyond what the union bureaucracy would like to see.

The Austrian Marxists are prepared to support this struggle and to organise solidarity activities. In the last weeks we have been present in front of several factories. Our analysis is followed by a whole layer of shop stewards, trade union officials and workers and is getting an echo. With our articles we gave an expression to those who are not prepared to give up collective bargaining without fighting. This struggle gives us an opportunity to spread the ideas of Marxism in this decisive sector of the Austrian working class.