Austria: Austrian trade unions call “defence-strikes”

Today the ÖGB (Austrian trade union federation) decided to organise "defence-strikes" on Tuesday April 29 in protest against the Peoples Party – Freedom Party (ÖVP-FPÖ) government’s attacks on the pension system. Reflecting the huge popular opposition to the government’s plans ÖVP and FPÖ members of the ÖGB executive unanimously supported this decision. At the same time Schüssel, the Austrian Chancellor, has refused to agree to any "compromise" proposal from the union leadership.

Outside this ÖGB executive meeting the SLP and the Left Block [the inner union faction of the Communist Party (KPÖ), Socialist Left Party (SLP – Austrian affiliate of the CWI) and independents] organised, together with other left union activists, a rally to urge the union leaders to organise a 24-hour general strike action on the 6 May to stop the cuts in the pension system. The SLP distributed leaflets and had a banner which read "only a strike can stop the robbery of pensions".

ÖGB President Verzetnitsch was pressurised by SLP members into speaking to the crowd of 300 in the early morning. The demand for a 24-hour general strike is getting a good response amongst union members. A contingent of Vienna municipal workers took an extremely radical position, one poster reading "for a social revolution" with a photo of Chancellor Schüssel as a mafia-boss! However later in a press conference Verzetnitsch stressed that the "defence strikes" were not a general strike because, he said, that would only be called if there was a fundamental threat to democracy or if the trade unions’ existence was attacked.

A part of the rally formed a demonstration to join an open-air workplace meeting of white-collar workers from different companies organised by the GPA white-collar workers union. At about 2.000 attended this protest against the pension changes. Significantly the biggest applause was for the call by Sallmutter, the national leader of the GPA, for "measures even up to a strike". A shop steward of a big bank said "work colleagues have lost their confidence in the social system and the ruling policy".

The space for manoeuvre is less than in the past, both given the pressure from the ruling class to cut the social welfare system and the fact that working class people are realizing the enormous importance of this threat to their future. The union leadership, like in the past, will maybe try to calm down the protests, but now they have to appear to step up the fight. However they may want to use the "defence-strikes" as a safety value to let of steam. Significantly the ÖGB did not say how long the April 29 strikes should last.

24 hour strike now

A 24 hour-strike could bring the government down, given the growing tensions inside both the FPÖ and the ÖVP! Within the FPÖ, Haider has called for a "no-vote" by the FPÖ ministers to this pension plan. This could lead within the next weeks to a division within the FPÖ and the fall of the coalition government. Haider fears that the government’s policies will totally devastate the FPÖ and the rise of a protest movement of the working class.

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) has no alternative for saving the pensions. The SPÖ leader Gusenbauer’s main criticism of the government is that its changes would be introduced "too fast". This lack of an alternative is of such dimensions that the Upper Austrian regional SPÖ, in a populist mood, has been forced to resist Gusenbauer’s proposal from the outset because of the "big number of shift workers and women in Upper Austria, … who will be losers".

There is widespread disillusionment amongst the traditional white-collar ÖVP voters towards the political establishment as they fear that the security of the social welfare system must been put into question. One result of this is that many ÖVP politicians have been forced to call for changes in the government’s pension plans. There is growing criticism within his own party against Chancellor Schüssel because of "the way" he went into this battle. This on the other hand reflects the need for the ruling class to make decisive cuts against the background of a prolonged international economic crisis.

In such a situation the strengthening of the self-confidence of working class people by united and solid strike action is key to both rebuilding the workers movement and undermine the neo-liberal attacks. A barrier, which we still have to take into account, is the lack of experience of workers’ struggles in recent decades. Workers seem to be prepared to support the strike action, but this needs to galvanised into action. There is an urgent need to build campaigning structures, like action committees, to mobilise support, plan what steps next to take and discuss which policies are necessary.

The SLP has already been active in this campaign. The ÖGB website even have a photograph of the SLP banner callling for strike action above the press release on the strike carried in their official website. We will continue to propose concrete steps to defeat the government’s attacks as well as explaining the need for the unions to become fighting and democratic organisations and for a new party of working class and young people with socialist policies.

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April 2003