Austria: Teachers and school students take strike action against attacks on education

Education sector gives an example by fighting back

Due to the announcement of attacks against teachers by the Austrian grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservatives (ÖVP – Austrian People’s Party), teachers and school students are to take strike action. A national day of protest, including a demonstration during working hours, has been called by the teachers’ union for 23 April. School students will show their solidarity, with contingents on the demonstration as well as by taking strike action themselves on April 20.

The SPÖ minister of education, Claudia Schmied, triggered the protests by announcing a lengthening of teachers’ working week by 2 hours without any increase in pay in late February. Incidentally, Schmied was, in the past, head of the Austrian bank, Communalkredit, which went bankrupt with the onset of the financial crisis and had to be bailed out and nationalised by the Austrian government. Behind the attacks on teachers is the refusal by the government to increase funding for schools and education (as opposed to the €15 billion strong bailout package for the Austrian banks), which would be necessary to finance progressive measures: moving towards a common school for 10-14 year olds as well as smaller classes. These measures had been promised by the SPÖ in the last general election, but it is obvious that without more money for teachers and schools, there won’t be any improvement. In an attempt to apply divide and rule tactics, the SPÖ is trying to present the teachers as a privileged group who don’t work hard enough and have far too much holiday time, completely ignoring the reality teachers’ lives. The argument is that teachers should accept their share of paying for the crisis because ’everybody else has as well’. The trade unions have already accepted short time work for certain industries, such as the auto industry. The capitulation of the trade unions in view of the threat of mass lay offs is a real scandal. If the teachers resist and refuse to pay for the crisis, this could trigger resistance from other sections of the working class as well. The plans of the SPÖ – to first attack a section of the working class that has less support among the population and is less important for their electoral base – are now being thwarted, as school students are beginning to take solidarity action. The mood among the population, which at first was receptive to the SPÖ’s mobbing (intimidation) of the teachers is also beginning to change.

The conservative People’s Party (OVP), for which the teachers provide a certain electoral base, is trying to present itself as more sceptical and careful, in relation to lengthening working hours. The fact that the ÖVP Finance Minister, Josef Pröll, controls the budgets for governmental departments, shows that this is a phony and hypocritical stance. In reality, the People’s Party welcomes the attacks but doesn’t want the blame. Another reason for the superficial opposition of the People’s Party to the attacks on the teachers is the fact that they oppose the idea of a common school. In Austria, at the age of 10 there is a separation into different types of school that decides in advance if someone will be a blue or a white collar worker and leads to strong social as well as ethnic segregation, as pupils from poorer and migrant backgrounds overwhelmingly attend one type of school.

The teachers’ union leadership, largely from the People’s Party and right wing even by the current standards of the Austrian trade union leadership, has so far tried their best to hold back the movement, and initially only suggested partial and individual action such as boycotting the PISA exams. The fact that they had to call for a strike on 23 April, including a demonstration, reflects the pressure from below and the growing radicalisation among teachers. In a workplace meeting of the teachers of schools for apprentices, which was leafleted by the SLP (CWI in Austria) and the platform for fighting and democratic unions, the decision to take strike action was agreed almost unanimously (there was only one vote against it, from a teacher who thought that the strike would start immediately).

School student solidarity

The fact that the school students take solidarity strike action is extremely significant. A 2,000 strong school students strike on 2 April in Vienna, as well as strikes in other parts of Austria, have already taken place, showing the support of the school students for their teachers’ resistance. For school students, this attack on the teachers will mean more pressure and harder conditions because teachers will be more stressed. It will not mean better education or more lessons for the students. Minister Schmied is trying to put off school students, by stating that the teachers “use” them – which is in fact exactly what she is doing herself. The school students strike on April 20 is a warning for the government before the budget will is presented on 21 April and a signal of support for the teachers. The Sozialistische LinksPartei (SLP – CWI in Austria) is an integral part of the movement as part of the alliance mobilising for the strikes and is locally involved in organising the school students’ strikes on theground.

These strikes follow the 15,000 strong ’we won’t pay for the crisis’ demonstration on 28 March. On this demonstration, the SLP initiated a contingent of teachers, school students and parents against the attacks on the teachers and against cuts in education. The demonstration had so much support amongst the working class,that nobody, not even the Kronen Zeitung, the biggest tabloid Austrian newspaper, dared to say anything bad about it. The Kronen Zeitung even quoted the slogan on the SLP placards that ’those who don’t take strike action have already lost’. The ÖVP minister of economy, Mitterlehner, said that he could understand why people went on the demonstration. The fact that the demo was organised by Attac, left organisations and NGOs and supported by individual unions such as the GPA, the union of private sector employees and the VIDA, which includes the union of the railway workers, is a strong signal that the left can organise resistance. This is all the more important as there had been a lull in movements and class struggles in the past two years. Up to this point the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the far right seemed to be the only ones opposing the effects of the crisis and seemingly providing answers. With the strikes in the education sector, the basis for a new workers party, which would be necessary to politically strengthen the struggles, to be built, and the basis for a fight against the far right, is definitely being laid.