On 5 September 300 steel workers gave voice to their anger against the privatisation of the last 35 percent of the once fully state owned steel works Voestalpine in Linz, Upper Austria.
The protest saw angry workers shouting and yelling at the managers, politicians and bosses of the state holding company ÖIAG who were meeting to finalise the privatisation deal. The protesters were joined by workers from other sections faced with privatisation such as post bus, postal and railway workers, as well as pilots from Austrian Airlines who had been on strike in August against wage cuts. The previous afternoon saw 12 000 workers protest and demonstrate in Linz. These union protests were extremely significant in that they showed the unity of workers against the attempts of the government and media to divide and rule.
The Social Democrats (SPÖ) were trying to utilise the workers’ anger to win votes in the Upper Austrian regional elections taking on 28 September, thus hiding their own fatal role in the Voest privatisation. Up to the 1980s a third of the Austrian industry and services had been owned by the state. After a major crisis in the middle of the 1980s the Social Democrats had been responsible for the selling off and privatising of most of the state held industries, with little or no resistance from the union leadership. 55,000 jobs had been cut by the middle of the 1990s. It is the selling off of the last bits and pieces of the state held industries that is now on the agenda of the government, against the background of a severe economic crisis.
None of the established parties are providing any alternative to the threat of privatisation. All of them are using the idea of an “Austrian” Voest, “Austrian ownership”. The demands of the SPÖ, Greens and parts of the Freedom Party are not going beyond the demand that the state should hold 25% percent of the shares. The Social Democrats are further suggesting that the workers should buy parts of the shares! The conservative People´s Party are suggesting an “Austrian Solution”, that is Austrian capitalists such as the Upper Austrian Raiffeisenbank buying the Voest. The far right Freedom Party is again wavering between populist demands and their government role as number one privatisers, using the nationalist card, “Voest is Heimat (our home)” was their election slogan.
In contrast the SLP – Sozialistische LinksPartei, affiliate of the CWI in Austria – are demanding public ownership of industry and services under democratic control of the workers, thus going beyond a capitalist solution and further raising the idea of a socialist society on an international scale. Members of the SLP also raised the idea of strike action to stop privatisation and the need for a new workers’ party. These ideas were met with warm response from young workers buying our paper, saying they want to strike, that none of the established parties are fighting for their interests and being interested in socialist ideas. SLP members sold 140 papers during the Linz protests.
The ÖGB (trade union federation) leadership had bitterly let down workers when they broke off strike action in June after a third of the entire Austrian workforce had been on strike against the government’s attacks on the pension system. The trade union officials are completely afraid of strike action taking off again and thus trying to prevent it. The activities they have to organise under pressure from the growing anger from below are therefore designed as symbolic protests rather then the class struggle that would be necessary. But workers increasingly question this strategy.
The next attempt of chancellor Schüssel & co will be to privatise postal and railway services. The protests have shown that workers are willing to fight. The arrogance of the ruling class is provoking more and more anger from the ranks of the working class. The task now is to rebuild the fighting traditions of the workers movement in Austria – a task which the SLP tries to answer with organising a meeting to campaign for a fighting and democratic ÖGB on the eve of the ÖGB-congress in October.