Tens of thousands march in Vienna against racism and austerity

The U6 tube line in Vienna resembled Saturday shopping a couple of weeks before Christmas, with tube carriages full of people. Yet it was January 13th and shopping was the last thing on most people’s minds travelling to Westbahnhof and the Christian Broda Platz, at the top of Vienna’s main shopping street. They came in their tens of thousands to protest against the new far right coalition government formed by the conservative ÖVP and the far right FPÖ.

This government has only been in power for a few weeks but it already managed to horrify an increasing number of people. Fully fledged austerity combined with state-sponsored racism and authoritarianism is the order of the day. Some of the measures planned by government leaders, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and Karl Heinz Strache (FPÖ), include the introduction of the 12-hour working day, attacks on abortion rights, cuts to education and other areas of the public sector, attacks on unemployment benefits, a speeding up of privatisation measures in housing and on the railways, attacks on health and safety laws, sweeping new repressive rights for the police and measures aimed to make life more difficult for migrants and asylum seekers. The list is seemingly endless.

The main mobilising slogan used for the demonstration on January 13th was “against racism and austerity”. It was striking to see countless homemade banners and placards produced by protesters denouncing cuts and attacks by the government against young people, workers, immigrants and the unemployed. When the front of the demo reached its final destination point, many people had not even begun marching and were still at Christian Broda Platz. It is impossible to say how many participated. To estimate that over 50,000 people took part in freezing and wet weather conditions is no exaggeration.

Austrian CWI members participated in the demonstration. We had our own mobile stage, from which SLP members were able to address thousands. Activists from other grassroots campaigns were invited onto our stage to speak, as well. This included members of a newly set up network aimed at organising teaching students, in which SLP comrades participate.

Lively alternative

Our rally was a lively and a necessary alternative to the speeches made on the main stage where right wing, pro-austerity members of the Austrian Social Democratic Party were given a platform so they could pretend to be part of “the resistance”. This included a representative from the social work employers, who currently aim to force through wage cuts and other cutbacks in the voluntary, charity and social work sectors. Meanwhile, on the SLP-stage, a social worker comrade spoke about the need to fight against all cuts and the battle to organise a combative trade-union campaign against these attacks.

It is worth pointing out that Austrian social democracy has been in power for decades. They are entirely to blame for the mess the country finds itself in. During the recent election campaign they tried to be even more racist than the FPÖ, threatening to put tanks on the Austrian border with Italy to stop refugees from entering the country.

Our socialist arguments came across well. A fundraising appeal directed at the crowds to meet the costs for our mobile stage raised the amount needed within minutes. Thousands of leaflets setting out a six-point programme to bring down the government were distributed during the day. SLP members called for the building of action committees in communities, workplace, schools and universities, which should be democratically linked to coordinate the fightback.

Today’s movement needs to learn the lessons from the last time the FPÖ entered government. In 2000, a mass movement developed but failed to overthrow the government. It failed to develop democratic and accountable structures, was oriented towards a future social democratic government and completely neglected any idea of class struggle.

It is not enough to just be against this government – positive and combative slogans and demands are needed too. Many people voted for this government because they were sick of how society is run for the benefit of the corrupt elite. They were mistakenly taken in by promises made by Sebastian Kurz and Strache that they would do things differently. In some ways, this also represents both the desire and the potential for a new workers’ party. No such alternative was on offer during the elections, thereby opening the way for some voters to follow Strache and Kurz. Now there is a rude awakening.

This may soon turn into a rude awakening for FPÖ leader, Strache, who has made a political career out of blaming every single problem in society on immigrants and refugees. As soon as his support for the introduction of the so-called “voluntary” introduction of the 12-hour working day was announced, his Facebook page was flooded with postings by angry working class people voicing their disappointment. Any serious fightback must take up this mood. We need a trade union-led battle for a shorter working week, higher wages, better funding for hospitals and the abolishing of all racist laws. We also cannot rely on the Social Democratic Party to do this work for us. The opposite is true. The fight against the current government needs to move onto the political plane. The development of a political alternative to racism and austerity – a real new workers’ party with a radical left wing programme – is crucial.

Official trade union leaders

Unfortunately the official trade union leaders have, so far, proven to be useless on these fronts. The Austrian trade union federation, ÖGB, boycotted a previous anti-government demonstration and called on its members to stay away. It did not seriously mobilise for the mass protest on January 13th either. Despite this, trade union contingents participated, some of them officially organised. For example, by the Vienna section of the social democratic trade union fraction within the ÖGB. This is in itself a reflection of the pressure building up within sections of the working class. Other workers attended as groups from their workplaces. One feature in the run up to the demo has been the springing to life of several groups of individuals who banded together to mobilise for the demo. There even was a contingent of “grannies against the far right”. This needs to be built on. Had the ÖGB used its resources to build for the demonstration in the workplaces, it could have easily been well over a 100,000-strong.

It is impossible to predict how the movement against the government will evolve. On January 26th there will be protests against a major event by the far right “Akademikerbund”, an elitist, racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalist student organisation with close ties to the Freedom Party that is now in government. The protests have the potential of becoming another anti-government protest.

Ultimately, it will take mass struggle and generalised strike action to bring this government down. The trade union leaders will do anything they can possibly can to prevent this from happening and to make the protests go away. This is why the building of action committees is so important to build up pressure. SLP members will do everything in their power to make this happen. For example, comrades are involved in organising an action committee at a primary school in Vienna. Teachers, pupils and parents organise against the coming conservative backlash planned by the government in the education sector. A broader meeting to bring together different education campaigns is being planned.

This energetic approach is recognised by a layer of youth, some of whom joined our party just hours after the demonstration. Austria has reached a turning point. The ‘quiet days’ are a thing of the past. The coming battles will provide an opening for the development of socialist ideas among young people and workers, something the SLP aims to use for the building and development of the forces of socialism.

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January 2018