Austria used to be a country in which the time lost in strikes was counted in minutes. This is beginning to change. Last year saw an increase in strike threats, particularly during last autumn’s wage negotiations, but also in relation to workplaces hit by the first impacts of the economy cooling down.
This week, workers in the social sector, which include child care workers in schools, are involved in a demonstration on 5 February demanding a shortening of their working week to 35 hours, without loss of pay, as well as a wage rise. The union has officially given the go-ahead for strike action.
The week began with workers in the Secop plant in Fürstenfeld (Styria) producing compressors for refrigerators going on a four-hour warning strike to defend jobs and their workplace. There had been strike threats in December, which resulted in an agreement with the old Japanese owner, Nidec, to buy back a production line there to save the plant and the jobs.
After two years’ ownership Nidec last year had sold Secop to the German/Swedish private equity firm, Orlando, who wanted to close down the plant to move production to Slovakia. The current warning strikes are aimed to make sure Orlando signs this deal. Orlando insists that the second line of production is not for sale. If Orlando does not back down, the warning strikes will be extended each weak.
If they do back down, it would be a major victory, showing that strike action and struggle can save jobs even in defensive battles, especially since the union leadership originally only planned to have a “social plan” to make sure workers get compensation for the job losses. The pressure from below to save the jobs forced them to take action. It would be important though not to rely on promises by either Nidec or Orlando but to force the plant being taken over into public ownership as the workplace is important for workers in the region.
This is taking place against a background of the first signs of an economic crisis beginning to have an effect, with job cuts at Magna and Opel Wien, and workplace closure threats, such as at Secop and now also at Rehau in Neulengbach (a plastics factory in Lower Austria).
Both these struggles are significant – in a time of crisis a shortening of the working week without loss of pay, sharing out the work would be an important means to combat redundancies and unemployment.
At the same time, in the social sector, union leaders in collective bargaining failed to raise the question of a pay rise – an important issue given that these are low paid sectors. The Left is strong in this sector, with several left-wing shop stewards, and there is a grassroots initiative called, “Sozial aber nicht blöd” (“social but not stupid”). These have been important factors contributing to the fact that there had been two strikes in this sector in the last few years. Sozial aber nicht blöd raises the demand for both shorter working hours, without loss of pay and a wage rise.
At the same time, workers in private hospitals are also involved in collective bargaining and a workplace conflict could happen there, as well. Also, wage rounds are still going on in other sectors – it would be a key advance to bring together the different sectors and unite the workers in struggle.
Auto industry crisis
Austria is facing a renewed economic crisis in the wake of the crisis of the German auto industry with which it has close ties due to a large part of an industry producing auto component parts. Last year, the metal workers who usually lead the way in the wage rounds ended up with a relatively better result because of a strike threat by the union. Nevertheless more could have been possible if the union leaders had allowed the strikes to go ahead.
The year before saw a 100,000 strong union-organised demonstration against the law, allowing a 12 hour working day, which was implemented by the then ÖVP/FPÖ conservative-far right coalition government. The effects of this law are an important factor in the warning strikes seen in the 2018/19 metal industry and railway wage rounds.
The 12 hour day law is still contributing both to a higher readiness to fight and mounting pressures from below. Thus, in the second half of 2019, Austria saw strike threats during wage rounds from metal workers (including foundry workers), brewery workers and telecommunication workers, while retail workers held workplace meetings to discuss strike action. In addition, outside wage negotiations, there has been the already mentioned strike threat at Secop and also one at the Mondi paper plant in Carinthia against cuts.
Sozialistische Offensive (CWI Austria) calls for a national cross-sector one day strike, as well as a cross-sector demonstration to begin to bring together these struggles. Such a step could begin to bring together workers in action and start to undermine the racist divide that the far right and right wing populists have played on to build support. To help achieve this, an organised opposition has to be built in the trade unions to the current leadership, which fully accepts the dangerous idea of “partnership” with the bosses and thereby seeks to hold back struggles. We stand for combative and democratic unions that are prepared to fight when necessary, reject capitalism and support a socialist change of society.
All these changes in Austria are happening against the background of a new government coalition of the conservatives and the Greens, allegedly fighting climate change, but in a way that is compatible with capitalism. It is clear that this government will attempt to make workers and the middle class actually pay for attempts to alleviate the climate crisis that capitalism’s drive for profits is causing. While making train tickets cheaper, which is a positive feature, they attack pensions, for example.
Stormy times are starting to develop and there will be the possibility to build a movement based on the best socialist traditions of the Austrian workers’ movement. This would be the basis not just to fight the impact of the developing economic and social crisis. It is also the only way to really deal with climate change; bringing into public ownership the key sectors of the economy and planning them democratically, to change production in a way that saves both jobs and the planet – by means of a socialist society.