“Strike week” gaining momentum in Austria

"Inflation = Wage Robbery". Retail workers march in Vienna for higher pay

“Railways, breweries, shops and retail, telecom, hospitals, universities: Let’s all strike together! For cross-sector strikes and a joint movement!” is the slogan that the CWI in Austria has been using in discussions with workers on the verge of struggle.

The media are already talking about a “strike week” and that Austria is “turning into a strike country”. About time! On November 28 railway workers on the state-owned ÖBB went on a 24-hour warning strike. The breweries are on rolling warning strikes at different locations throughout the week. On November 29th there was a one-hour warning strike by telecom workers.

Unfortunately, the retail strike on December 2 and 3 was called off as the union settled – that would have been the first strike in the 430,000-strong retail sectors in a long time. The settlement included a pay rise of on average 7.3% (with a minimum monthly rise of 145 euros before taxes). Given that the original offer of the bosses had been 4%, the strike threat alone was very successful in driving up the bosses’ offer. This was especially so as the rail strike was what the bosses could be facing. It shows the potential power of a strike. Just imagine what would have been possible if the strike had gone ahead.

But the fact that retail settled will not be the end of the warning strike wave. For a long time, strike threats in Austria were enough to scare the bosses into giving in. The leaders of the ÖGB trade union federation had long been proud of “social partnership” deals and the “social peace” this meant. We now see the beginning of this changing into harder confrontations. The bosses are less prone to give in during a more difficult and uncertain economic situation, with rising energy prices. In sector after sector, there are workplace meetings and strike threats.

In October, the official inflation rate was 11% – it is incredible that workers should not get a pay rise to compensate them for that. Many retail workers told us that they would have preferred to strike and get the full 11% to compensate for inflation. There are some unions who seem to be more combative – in the rail sector, the demand was originally an extra 500 euros a month (and has now been lowered to 400, the bosses are offering 208 euros). Most union leaders seem to accept pay cuts as they use the previous year’s average inflation as the basis for negotiations and could settle soon as the bosses offer that. This is what happened in retail. However, that has not been the case though yet in the rail sector where the demand still is 400 euros.

The strikes are more than justified even if the media and employers are already trying to isolate and divide individual sectors. They have particularly targeted the railway workers who, with the relatively militant course of their union Vida, staged a 24-hour warning strike on 28th November. One reason why they target it is that a rail strike is visible and has the potential to paralyse the country. In 2003 there was a three-day strike against liberalisation of the railways. The government called off the railway strike after three days, because the blast furnace at the Voest steelworks was, after three days without supplies, in danger of being shut down, which would basically mean that it could not be used anymore. The railway workers have great economic power.

The church-run hospitals, which had been on warning strike too last week, and ambulance workers, showed solidarity with the railway strike. There was even the threat of a solidarity strike at the Innsbruck city public transport company (the chairman of the board was negotiating with the bosses on the railway agreement).

New chair of ÖGB?

The media say the strikes are down to Vida chair Roman Hebenstreit wanting to become new chair of the ÖGB. They say he is acting to get a better result than the metal sector whose leader called off a warning strike one day before it was supposed to happen for a settlement of 7.44%. So what if Hebenstreit wants to become ÖGB leader? If differences between the union leaders mean higher agreements and a more combative stance, then they are definitely in the interest of the workers. If Vida takes a more militant course, then this is ultimately also an expression of the increased pressure from below.

At the same time as the strikes are taking place, Vienna University is occupied, after a 9,000-strong demo for more finance for the universities and workplace meetings of university staff. The occupation is taking place under the motto of “erde brennt” (“the earth is burning”, an allusion to the slogan “unibrennt” (“unis are burning”), a slogan used in 2009 in previous university occupations, but also an allusion to climate change. This has led to an attempt to lump the university occupations together with the actions of the climate activists of the “last generation”. They targeted museums in Austria in recent weeks and these actions are not creating unity but are rather having the opposite effects on the broader population. But there is also solidarity between the mid-level staff, who are suffering as the universities’ budget has not been raised sufficiently to cover inflation (the staff has renewable contracts that will probably not be renewed), and the students who have occupied the lecture halls, who are hut by the general crisis and inflation.

Employers and the government are terrified that workers could unite in resistance and possibly even join forces with the students, as was for example the case in France in 1968. Unfortunately, unlike then, there is (still) no vision of a democratic, socialist society amongst broad layers of society that could pose an alternative and actually solve the accumulating problems in the interest of the working class and youth.

But now that there are threats of strikes in more and more sectors, the attempts of the media and the employers to isolate the strikes may come to nothing. What accusations will they bring against the retail and shop workers? They can hardly be accused of earning too much money or having too high salaries. That they are causing hardship to small businesses? Where there are still small shops that are under pressure from energy costs, a gas price cap could ensure that these are also relieved. In any case, the big chains are making enough profits – they should pay, and not workers.

Those sectors that have already settled too low (metal industry, social and health sector, public sector) could demand additional payments and join possible protests. There is a need for cross-sector strike action, possibly with joint strike rallies and strike demonstrations, to bring the workers in the individual sectors together – so that they see that they are not alone. The staff in the social sector were ready to strike when the union settled for only half of what they had demanded (8% instead of 15%) and might be ready to strike again.

The tradition of pickets, who make sure that the strike is solid, also needs to be “learned” again, as there had been hardly any visible at train stations during the rail strikes, although in this case the strike was solid, also stopping privatised train companies functioning. Strikes should be organised at rank and file level in democratically elected strike committees, with democratic discussions in strike assemblies about demands, strategy, and negotiation results. The shop stewards of the Hospital of the Sisters of Mercy in Vienna, for example, presented the outcome of the negotiations to the staff for a vote. They can decide for themselves whether they want to accept it or whether there will be further strikes. That should also happen in other workplaces so that the rank and file have the ultimate control over what the unions do. Solidarity committees could organise solidarity from customers, patients, and passengers so that the media and employers find it harder to divide and rule.

Sozialistische Offensive (CWI in Austria) during the course of this week went to talk to workers at train stations, in shops on the major shopping street in Vienna, and to students at the university.

Retail and shops:

“Everywhere people were happy about our leaflets. There are many companies in the retail sector that do not have a shop stewards committee. But there was also a lot of interest, most of the workers we talked to asked if the strike would take place and if they could join in too. All of them said that they urgently need a wage increase above inflation, many said that they don’t have enough staff to cover their shifts and that this will not get better if the wages are not increased properly. The GPA (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, private sector union) should send activists to the shops and talk to people to help them organise and take part in strike action. However, some colleagues feared that the union would give in once the employers offered 6.9%. Inflation in October was 11%. If there is a strike, the workers want to see proper increases!”

Railways:

“One worker we talked to donated 20 euros – which we used to produce more strike leaflets. The workers there said that the strike was the only choice they had given the price hikes. One worker said that he only heats his apartment to 20 degrees and is wondering how single mothers are able to cope. There was concern about the media’s attempts to isolate railway workers. But there was also agreement that we need cross-sector strikes and, showing how some workers are drawing political conclusions, that the SPÖ no longer represents the working class. One worker to whom we talked about the strike of 2003, which was directed against the breaking up of the ÖBB into several companies, i.e. the preparation for the liberalisation of the railways, said that a lot had changed since 2003, that cohesion was much more difficult today. All the more important is the strike! There was also great solidarity for the retail sector too.”

Universities:

“On Sunday we went to the occupied lecture hall of Vienna University to show our support and solidarity – the lecture hall was supposed to be evacuated the following morning. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the occupation was extended to the University of Natural Resources on Monday. Some students at the occupation were having lively discussions about current events, especially the precarious financial situation of the university. Meanwhile, in lecture hall C1, financial difficulties for students were discussed. There were calls for the abolition of tuition fees and entrance exam fees for non-EU citizens, as well as the recognition of qualifications from non-EU countries, free pre-study courses, free literature, and special dates for examinations for students with work or care obligations. Also included was the demand to abolish the obligation to present a C1 certificate in German. It was then possible to vote for or against the demand via a QR code. This was passed with 98% of the votes. At the end of the day ‘Whose lecture hall? Our lecture hall!’ was chanted.

“Later, around 11 pm, the frustration about the precarious situation due to the multiple crises became clear once again when the students sang songs such as ‘The Last Song’ by KUMMER during a karaoke session. One of the verses read: ‘The system is broken and society is failing, but everything will be fine!’”

Sozialistische Offensive argues for: 

  • Cross-sector strikes so that the individual sectors cannot be played off against each other
  • A top-up for those sectors that have already settled with agreements that is too low
  • No to union leaders presenting real wage losses as real wage gains
  • Active strikes, with strike demonstrations and strike rallies, bring the workers in the different sectors together. For democratically elected strike committees to organise the strikes from below, for democratic discussions of (and decisions on) demands, strategy, and negotiation outcome. For pickets and solidarity committees
  • A gas price cap and price controls on necessities. For the energy sector and food corporations to be publicly owned under democratic control and management by the working people
  • Building networks in the unions to transform them into militant and democratic bodies
  • A genuine democratic socialist society that can actually solve the problems that exist at the moment according to the needs of the majority instead of profits

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