Austria: Metal Workers’ wage agreement

Strike action wins concessions – but 4.2% is not enough!

After warning strikes, including 24 hour strikes in some workplaces, in the metal industry on Thursday and Friday, October 13 & 14, the trade union leadership cancelled the strikes that had been planned for the following Monday, October 17, in favour of negotiations. The result – a 4.2% wage increase on average – was very disappointing for those workers who had been on strike. “This is not what we went on strike for. All this fuss and then they settle for this?”, is the general feeling amongst those metal workers SLP members talked to.

The trade union leaders pat themselves on the back and claim they reached 5.3% for the lowest wage groups. But the increase for these wage groups in reality is only 4.4%, the rest is down to one-off payments. The higher wage groups only get 3.8% which is only just above inflation. In the metal industry most workers are paid above the minimum wage – for them the 3.8% result is a spit in the face. Workers feel betrayed, and rightly so. It seems that the trade union leaders got scared of the forces they unleashed and tried putting the lid back on again. If strike action had continued it could have drawn other sections of the working class into action. Wage negotiations for the private sector started on Wednesday October 19, while on Tuesday October 18 university students organised protests and demonstrations against the reintroduction of tuition fees. Workers at Wien Energie (the Vienna Council Energy Company) would have joined in strike action on the Monday. If strike action had continued a much better agreement could have been achieved. But the trade union leaders did their best to confuse workers in what felt like an abortion of the struggle.

The Socialist Left Party (CWI in Austria) had continually visited workplaces such as Opel in Vienna, the VOEST steel works in Linz, Andritz in Styria and Bosch in Salzburg. Our demands had included that the strike should be organised democratically from below, that there be democratic elections of strike committees, for negotiations to be held publicly and strike action to be continued during the negotiations. The response by workers was a warm one. They were happy about receiving support. But both the employers and the shop stewards were not happy at all about our presence. Both were nervous about the impact of our ideas. The shop stewards basically told us that it is not a good idea to ‘confuse’ workers. The employers sent the police to tell us to leave the industrial estate where the workplaces were. Some Opel workers had told us that the strike at their plant had been completely top down, the strike committee was not elected. The existing shop stewards had simply declared themselves the strike committee. Workers seemed to be intimidated by the shop stewards and held back from raising any criticism.

On Thursday October 20 the SLP organised a protest at the trade union headquarters against the betrayal by the trade union leaders, demanding a vote on this pay deal by workers in the metal industry. The SLP had collected 800 signatures in support of the striking workers and had handed them over to the trade union leaders of the metal workers union PRO-GE. We explained our criticism that the result was not good enough and said that workers were disappointed. When we raised the question of workers voting on whether or not to accept his deal, PRO-GE official Wimmer stated this would be a “Schnapsidee” (a ridiculous idea).

Still, the result also shows that strike action is a very effective means of struggle. Without the strikes it is unlikely that even this relatively weak result would have been possible. The bosses’ organisation would not have granted a wage increase of over 4% if it were not for the strikes. The strike had massive support in the working class according to opinion polls. It set the tone for the following wage rounds. According to latest opinion polls more than two thirds are in favour of wage increases of over 4%; amongst workers earning less than 1,800 euro a month before tax more than 40% are in favour of a wage increase of over 5%. This result is a disappointing one for the metal workers, but for the rest of the Austrian working class the message that strike action can win concessions is an important lesson and an inspiration for coming struggles. The metal workers warning strikes will be part of the process of the reawakening of the potentially mighty Austrian working class.

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October 2011