Austria: 100,000 protest against longer working hours

Saturday 30 June saw huge crowds of protesters in Vienna. The Austrian trade union federation, ÖGB, called for a demonstration against an attempt to raise the legal limit on working hours. Trade union members and other working class people from all over Austria came to participate. The front of the demonstration reached the final rally before the majority had even started to march. At first, the police spoke of only 25,000 taking part but they quickly had to change the official figure to 80,000. But it was clearly much more than 100,000 taking part.

The SLP, the Austrian section of the CWI, took part in the demonstration, with a lively contingent. We sold over 250 papers, gave out over 2,500 leaflets and our placards calling for a strike were warmly welcomed.

No to 12 and 60!

The demonstration was against the Austrian government’s attempts to change the legal working hours. The labour law today allows a maximum of 10 hours per day and 50 hours per week (but already there are exceptions to this). The government – a coalition of the modernised and even more neoliberal Peoples Party (ÖVP) and the far right, Freedom Party (FPÖ), which has shown its brutal capitalist face very openly since it came into the government – is working hard to fulfill all the wishes of the bosses. This includes a reduction of tenants’ rights, racist segregation in schools and more “flexible” working hours. They want to increase the maximum legal working hours to 12 per day and 60 per week. They try to present the measure in bright colours, saying nobody would “have to” work these hours, that it would all be “voluntary” and that this would allow working people to have longer weekends. But to a majority, it is absolutely clear that in a job there is hardly anything “voluntary” and that it is the bosses who decide who works and when. The measure would also cost working class people money, as overtime pay would be reduced.

Trade unions mobilise

The plans for 12/60 were known for nearly a year, but the government waited to act until after the various local elections, this year. The announcement to push forward with 12/60 was published only hours after the June congress of the ÖGB finished. And the government did not even stick to the normal parliamentary procedure but used a trick to avoid discussion in the parliament and rush the measure through. Their plan is to pass the new law by July 4th, which is at the start of the holiday period.

In less than two weeks, the ÖGB organised shop steward conferences in all major cities. In hundreds of companies, workplace meetings were also organised with thousands or tens of thousands participating. In companies where SLP-members work or are shop stewards, the question of a strike as a necessary next step was part of the discussion.

In the days between the demo and the planned implementation of the legislation, more workplace meetings are taking place in a number of big companies. On Monday 2 July, railway workers and the staff of some of the other public transport networks held workplace meetings, which were de-facto strikes. Graz, Austria’s second biggest city had hardly any public transport on Monday morning and many trains were late or cancelled. The ÖGB called out the heavy battalions for this round of workplace meetings, as some of the main industries, like the steel company, VOEST, were also halted.

The anger of the working class about 12/60 was loud and clear at the demonstration, which was flooded with a sea of placards and posters. These were not only those prepared by the trade unions, but also many were hand-made. Opinion polls show that a majority is against 12/60 and supports the idea of striking against it. The working class is showing its power. Now the question is what comes next?

For a plan of action

The ÖGB has a tradition of “social partnership”, of class collaboration with both the government and employers. Often it seems more important to the union leaders be invited to the negotiating table rather then what is actually negotiated. But the various organisations of the working class are under attack by this government, which wants to reduce the influence of workers’ organisations in the health and social security sector, as well as in workplaces. So the jobs of the trade union bureaucrats themselves are in danger. At the same time, pressure from below is increasing as working class people hear propaganda of an economic boom every day, but do not feel it in their pockets.

In the period leading up to the ÖGB congress, the SLP took the initiative to form a broader platform for a fighting policy in the ÖGB, which intervened in the ÖGB-congress. “ÖGB aufrütteln” (‘Wake up, ÖGB’) is supported by shop steward bodies and trade union activists. And it came just in time. A bus was hired for the demonstration and various shop stewards and workplace activists spoke and marched together, including the SLP-contingent. “Strike!” was the call that was sent out into the demonstration and welcomed by a lot of colleagues.

The SLP published a statement and leaflet with a proposal for a plan of action. We explained why a struggle can only be won if the colleagues in the various workplaces are an active part in the decisions and preparations. We argued to bring together the various protests, as the government does not only attack on this question, but also on others – and there are other protests takin place too.

The SLP leaflet that was given out in many of the shop steward conferences and at the demo called for a strike and made it clear how a strike should be organised, why we can’t wait until the measure is passed in parliament and why it is necessary to answer the generalised attack with a generalised answer – a general strike.

We also took up the political question. SLP activists took part in a number of shop steward conferences. In Upper Austria, where statements from the floor were accepted, SLP member and shop steward, Gerhard Ziegler, said a strike was a necessity. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), which lost most of its power and influence in the last decades, tries to present itself as an opposition and pretends to “fight” against 12/60. But as part of their government plans the SPÖ had also called for it, although in a ‘softer’ way. The SPÖ is not making a serious attempt to struggle for working class interests – their “fight” is mainly a populist move. Their main goal is to modernise the Austrian economy, to be “fit” for international competition. That is basically the same aim as the Chancellor and ÖVP leader, Sebastian Kurz. So the question of a political alternative has to be brought up, as well.

How stable is the government?

The paradox of the situation is that the government still has good results in opinion polls and has not lost a lot since they were elected in October 2017. This is not only because of their very professional and centrally-controlled media performance but also because of the lack of any serious alternative and a general feeling that it is something new and an improvement, that a government actually seems to work.

Every time they make an attack on the working class, they rush forward with a new “refugee crisis” and do everything to divert attention. This partially works, as years of racist policies from all established parties never gave any answers to the social questions linked to the refugee “problem”, which has led to a broader acceptance of racist policies.

But it would be wrong to call the government stable. There are international tensions, although they do everything possible to cover them up. And these tensions will increase not only around EU questions but also as the FPÖ is put under increasing pressure from its electorate.

It was always wrong to think that the FPÖ would be the new “workers party”, as some commentators said, but it is true that many working class people voted for them believing (or hoping) in FPÖ propaganda that they have ‘social’ policies. Vice Chancellor Strache, from the FPÖ, who is very active on Facebook, quickly learned about the mass anger against 12/60 and other measures when they became public. Holding the EU presidency, Chancellor Kurz, who is presented as the rising star of the bourgeois political forces in Europe, will find out that he cannot easily solve any of the problems his government faces.

And last but not least for the stability of the government, the working class has only started to move. The government had to announce changes to the 12/60 legislation but it was too little, too late.

The ÖGB made a lot of mistakes. It wants the situation to calm down and hopes to go back to the negotiating table. Above all, the ÖGB wants to control the working class. But the other side is that hundreds of thousands of working-class people are angry and want to fight. They are not prepared to just be called out for a protest and then accept a rotten deal. It is very much open, what the coming days will bring. But what is for sure is that the battles are not over.

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