Austria: University and school students, kindergarden workers and metal workers protest in joint day of action

15th day of university occupations – at least 20,000 on the streets

15 days after the occupation of Vienna University’s main lecture hall, "Auditorium Maximus", a joint day of action by university students, school students and workers took place on 5 November. The students marched again for free education and adequate funding for universities.

The protests started in the morning, with a joint rally and demonstration of metal workers and students. The metal workers are protesting for higher wages – their collective bargaining talks had broken down, because the bosses’ demands were too far-reaching even for the trade union leadership. Shop stewards’ conferences have already taken place and their struggle will continue if the negotiations on 13 November are not successful. If this is the case, strike action is also possible. The union leadership has obviously been pushed to the left by the students’ protests. The university students had already sent greetings of solidarity to workplace meetings and joined workers’ protests on 28 October – now the metal workers in return proved their solidarity with yesterday’s joint protest. The GMTN metal workers’ union had also visited the occupied "Audimax" and brought food in support. The joint protest was mainly down to an initiative proposed by the Socialist Left Party (SLP, CWI in Austria).

The metal workers were not the only ones to show solidarity with the students though. At 9am school students met for a protest for free education. In Vorarlberg, 250 school students went out onto the streets, 100 in Vienna. In the meantime, students briefly occupied the restaurant of the department of science. In the afternoon, demonstrations began at different universities and converged for a final rally. Among the at least 20,000 demonstrators were shop stewards representing Vienna university staff, kindergarden workers, metal workers and school students. Representatives of both the kindergarden workers and metal workers commended the students’ protests and in solidarity, invited them to join future protests of theirs. This linking up of struggles is definitely an important new feature in the situation. In Salzburg, a demonstration of 400 took place, in Graz 2,000 students took to the streets. In Innsbruck and Linz, students have also been demonstrating. There are currently occupations underway in all university cities in Austria.

What is significant about the students’ protests is that, like the kindergarden workers struggle, this is an “offensive” struggle for sufficient funding – despite the crisis. And for the majority of the population it is obvious that the protests are justified, as conditions at universities are disastrous and the working conditions of kindergarden workers are being worsened. The attempts by the government to employ “divide and rule” tactics do not work. The ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Congress) was forced to support the students’ struggle. When SLP (CWI) members were on the way to the school students’ protest, they received a positive response from blue collar workers passing by, stating that the students were right to protest and that they thought they should go on strike themselves! The protests are also inspiring students in other countries – within the last two days 6 universities in several German Cities were occupied in solidarity with the movement in Austria. There are also reports about occupations in the US.

The government seems to be uncertain about how to react to the protests. The Social Democrats are zigzagging from "understanding the students demands" to demanding "knock out exams" "to keep German students out" as well as condemning the tactic of occupation. This tactic of trying to blame German students for the lack of resources does not work, as German and migrant students are part of the protests and the movement rejects any kind of racism or discrimination. The Peoples’ Party (conservatives) Minister of science, Johannes Hahn, will probably be sent off to Brussels for a job in the EU commission. The government seems to be wavering between a hardline position and making concessions. What is clear is that the €34 Million promised by the government, although a first sign that concessions can be won by determined struggle, will not be enough. This money was already part of the budget of the department of science, but had up to then been put to the side for "emergencies". The governments’ solutions so far – "knock out exams" and a re-introduction of tuition fees – have been repeatedly rejected by the movement. The fact that the government is trying to give the impression of "lookig for money for the universities" in the budget is fuelling the students’ hunger for more.

Minister Hahn has agreed to talk to activists (and not just the students union) at a “round table” discussion on 25 November. The SLP is suggesting a national education conference to bring together students to discuss the demands for these talks, elect representatives to speak to Hahn and discuss the next steps. What is clearly lacking so far is an escalation strategy – what can be done to step up the action and increase the pressure? The longer the occupations last, the greater the danger of the activists getting tired – although the protests on 5 November have definitely given new energy to the movement. Also, the fact that the movement does not have democratically elected representatives or structures is a weakness. There is a skepticism about structures, organisation and "ideology". On the other hand, students are hungry for ideas – and have welcomed our leaflets with interest. The SLP also suggests a demonstration be called for 25 November to strengthen the hand of those who take part in the talks with Hahn. The talks should be held openly with a live video stream, so that people can follow what is going on. The linking up of the students’ struggle with workers’ struggles need to be intensified. The day of action of the kindergarden workers on 21 November will be supported by students, as will the protests of the metal workers. On 28 November, a demonstration against the capitalist crisis will take place. This would be a good opportunity to further unite the different struggles under a clear anticapitalist banner.

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November 2009