Austria: 60,000 school students strike on 24 April

Growing unrest among workers and youth

Crowded streets of Vienna

April 24 saw the biggest school students strike since the 1980s with 60,000 school students on the streets all over Austria. These are the first signs of growing unrest and struggles in the wake of the economic crisis. The strike on April 24 was the 3rd school strike within 3 weeks, just days after a 10,000 strong national school students strike on Monday April 20 and the capitulation of the teacher’s union leadership. Hours after the school students went on strike on April 20, in solidarity with the teachers, the GÖD (public sector union) leadership finalised a deal with the government, calling off the strike that was due on Thursday April 23.

This deal did not include the original plan of social democrat (SPÖ) education minister Claudia Schmied to prolong the teachers’ working week by two hours, but it did include the cancellation of five so-called ’autonomous school days’, school-free days that could be fixed locally. This, in effect, is still a prolonging of working hours for the teachers and it will not mean an improvement for the school students. In addition to that the union leadership accepted pay cuts for the teachers. The social democrat teachers’ union representative was virtually forced by the SPÖ leadership to agree to this deal – once more a reminder that the SPÖ leaders use their links with the unions to force through attacks and an illustration of why a new workers’ party is needed urgently so that struggles can be successful.

What is interesting is that despite the fact that the government is the real winner here – they went through with cuts in education – the public perception is that even strike threats on their own can be an efficient means of struggle. To illustrate the mood, a couple of young apprentices approached Socialist LeftParty (SLP, CWI in Austria) activists who were carrying strike placards on April 24 on the Vienna underground, saying "We want to strike as well! First they attack the teachers and then they attack everybody else!".

students on strike

School students to the forefront

The school students strike on April 24 was sparked by anger about the cancellation of well needed holidays. Despite drawing much larger numbers onto the streets, reflecting the growing intent on the part of many students to fight the government’s attacks, the strike was, in a way, less political than the previous one, in that the strike on April 20, organised by left school student organisations, was called explicitly in solidarity with the teachers and against cuts in education.

The April 24 strike was co-organised by the Peoples’ Party’s school students’ organisation (Schülerunion) who had one a deal with Schmied the day before about cancelling only 3 days of holiday. The Peoples’ Party (ÖVP) , traditionally Austria’s main capitalist party, forms the national coalition government with Schmied’s SPÖ. The Schülerunion had planned to use the strike to celebrate this deal as a victory. They had underestimated the dynamic of events though – most school students who went on strike were not at all satisfied with the deal and demanded the full amount of holidays, refusing to be punished for the mistakes of capitalism.

In Vienna, the demonstration that was organised by the left organisations had by far a larger turnout in numbers than the one of the Schülerunion. In Salzburg, where the strike was mainly organised by the Socialist Left Party (SLP – CWI in Austria), the mood on the strike was very political – it addressed the economic crisis and criticised the leadership of the teachers’ union for backing down and failing to lead a serious struggle against the government‘s attacks; the demonstration in Salzburg also included contingents of young trade unionists. The Salzburg demo on April 20 was bigger than the one in Vienna with 3,000 turning out. On April 24, 8,000 school students came out on strike in Salzburg in a city of 150,000 inhabitants. The April 24 strike indicated the politicisation a layer of young school students that has now been drawn into action, with some drawing anti-capitalist conclusions as the current crisis is used to attack their futures. These young people now need to get organised around a fighting platform to fight against the attacks on education and living standards, including growing youth unemployment, and also, to put pressure on the trade unions to lead a real effective struggle.

As this movement got underway, the SLP launched ’’ (’’), a website as well as a school students’ paper, as a forum for school students who want to get active in the struggle and strikes. In the articles on the website and in the paper, together with school student activists, we raised the need to link the attacks on education with the economic crisis and the need for a common struggle of teachers and school students.

CWI paper on the demonstrations

CWI paper on the demonstrations

Trade unions forced to mobilise

There is still massive anger amongst school students and especially teachers. The fact that the teachers’ strike on April 23 would have included a demonstration during working hours reflected the enormous pressure from below – this pressure will not just evaporate. The SLP argues that the school student movement must be linked the teachers’ struggle as well as struggles of other layers of society in order to build the strongest possible struggle against attempts to make workers and youth pay for this crisis.

The developing economic crisis is increasingly provoking resistance on the part of the working class. The government’s budget that is being presented as a ’crisis intervention budget’ is definitely not a favourable one to the working class – 10.3 billion euro of the budget is calculated for bank rescue packages. But this may not be enough to rescue Austria’s banks which are heavily threatened by any financial crisis in central and eastern Europe. The economic crisis is already having a social effect. Three weeks ago the president of the Caritas catholic charity accused the Austrian elite of carrying out a “class struggle” against workers, thereby undermining the “social market economy” that he supported.

The trade union leadership had originally intended to ignore the economic crisis – but not only were parts of them forced to support the ’we won’t pay’ demo on March 28, they are now increasingly forced to mobilise. There is a looming strike threat by the print workers, as the bosses’ union is attempting to drop collective bargaining. Now, because of the pressure from below, a demonstration has been called on May 13 by the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) on the issue of wage negotiations. This ÖGB call was suddenly issued on April 28, up until then the ÖGB had been mobilising to take a few workers to Prague on May 16 to attend one of the four European trade union protests taking place between May 14 and 16. The SLP and other left organisations are calling for another school students strike on May 13 to link the different struggles into a generalised one. It is clear that a socialist alternative is needed to end the system of capitalist chaos and crisis.

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April 2009