Austria: Over one million strike against pension cuts

More than 1 million workers in 18,000 workplaces all over Austria, a third of the entire Austrian workforce, took industrial action on 3 June – the country’s biggest strike since World War Two.

Austria came to a complete halt. It was the third time within weeks that the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) had called for a day of action against the attacks on the pension system planned by right wing ÖVP-FPÖ government of chancellor Schüssel.

The length of the strike action varied from complete 24-hour stoppages to more limited strike actions in some workplaces. The police and gendarmerie also joined in the protests.

The strike call was met by a wave of solidarity from those sections of workers that have not been involved in strike action, such as casual workers, the unemployed etc. Opinion polls showed that 53% of all Austrians supported the action, with support peaking at 68% amongst under-30s. The question posed now is: what next?

On the front line of the struggle, as on 6 May, were public transport and railway workers, as well as the major formerly nationalised chemical and steel industries in Linz. Likewise, 250,000 public sector workers, including workers in schools, kindergartens and universities, and hospital staff and council workers, went on strike. Airport, bank and postal workers also took action, as did employees from the social and pension insurance. In the major cities demonstrations, road blockades and protests were organised. In Linz, workers from the major industries joined together in a 10,000 strong rally in front of the Landhaus, the regional government. In Graz there was a demonstration of construction workers. At the BMW works in Steyr 2,000 workers took part in a protest.

Anger and cynicism

The anger against the cynicism of the government is overwhelming. Members of the SLP (Socialist Left Party, affiliate of the CWI in Austria) participated in Vienna, Linz and Salzburg. Our call for a general strike was met with a warm response. None of the strikers we spoke to thought that the 3 June protests would be enough and were clear that only decisive action can force the government to back down. Yet the ÖGB leadership still hesitates to step up action and simply refuses to use the words ‘general strike’.

However, the pressure from below is building up, especially from workers facing other serious attacks from the government. Railway workers that are faced with the threat of privatisation and ‘re-structuring’ said that this is not only a battle against the pension cuts. Teachers went on strike for the fourth time within two months against the pension cuts and cuts in education. Robert Wurm, leader of the Postbus workers (postal and transport), said that a general strike could not be ruled out.

SLP members sold copies of our paper, Vorwärts, as well as badges saying "Schüssel Go Home". Our badges which included the demand for a ‘general strike’, sold better then the ones with ‘strike’. Many workers recognised our paper and welcomed our support. One striker told us, "We did not forget that the SLP was there when we blocked the road on May 6th". In a workplace canteen in Linz protesting workers wanted to discuss anti-capitalist and socialist ideas with SLP members. One SLP member, who is an elected school student representative, initiated a joint protest of teachers and school students against the attacks.

The government will try to ignore the 3 June mass action by the working class. It is clear that the next step has to be a general strike to achieve broad participation from all sections of the working class and to put extra pressure on Schüssel and co.

Transforming Austria

The SLP argues for a national conference of shop stewards, trade union activists, school students and the unemployed to build for a general strike and the struggle against the government. If a strike movement succeeds in bringing down this hated government, or if the Schüssel’s administration is blown apart as a result of the inner contradictions of the coalition partner, the populist right FPÖ, it will have a huge positive effect on the outlook of workers. Within the FPÖ Haider is making an attempt to rebuild his position by launching populist attacks on top politicians’ pensions.

The scale of this protest shows that the last chapter has not yet been written in this struggle, which is transforming Austria and bringing back to life the fighting traditions of the Austrian workers’ movement.

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June 2003