Austria: Indefinite strike at Ardo points the way to an autumn of discontent

An indefinite strike at Ardo, a food processing and packaging plant, in Groß-Enzersdorf, near Vienna, is entering its second week. A warning strike was held on September 11, and the 150-strong workforce has now been on strike since September 13th.

An offensive open-ended strike in Austria in an individual company and for a wage increase that exceeds the collective bargaining agreement – has not happened in Austria for a long time. However, it is not surprising that it has come to this: the collective bargaining agreement increase in the sector of food production at the end of 2022, at 7.25%, was below the inflation rate of 11% at the time, and meant a real wage loss for workers.

The strike at Ardo continues what we have been experiencing with inflation since the fall of 2022: an increasing willingness to fight of workers in Austria as many simply can no longer afford to live. While we have seen struggles during the wage rounds in autumn 2022 (railway workers, brewery workers, hospital workers, and an almost strike in the retail sector), the education and health sector is also in turmoil. There are increasingly signs of pressure from below forcing struggles. On September 20, childcare staff at schools are walking out (again) over being used as substitutes for teachers given the lack of staff.

That is why workers at Ardo are not alone in their struggle: everyone is affected by the price increases. But employers are less and less willing to make concessions. Confrontations are sharpening, in a country famous for a very low level of strikes (for a long time measured in minutes).

“We sit tight until they move and give us money,” said one of the striking women working in production when we visited the factory gate on the third day of the strike. “We’ve been asking for a wage increase for years, but they’re always referring us to the headquarters in Belgium, saying the company doesn’t have any money,” said another. On the other hand, Ardo made a net profit of 17 million euros last year.

Two-thirds of the workforce is participating in the strike, and the company providing agency workers is now sending more agency staff. In strike meetings and in pickets at the factory gate, discussions could also be held with colleagues who have not joined the strike, so far. The strike poses questions of how can non-strikers and agency staff can be convinced to join the strike, as well as can the access of trucks bringing vegetables be blocked?

The more united the strike, the more secure the jobs. The worries of those who had not yet joined the strike would also have to be addressed in the demands – if there are concerns whether the jobs or the workplace itself could be on the line, then the strike is the best prerequisite for keeping them, because it shows that the workers are ready to put up a fight. The worries are understandable in view of the crisis of capitalism. We must fight to ensure that the crisis of capitalism is not carried out on the backs of the workers. If the plant is to be closed or relocated, it could be taken into public ownership under democratic control and management by working people – then Ardo cannot move production.

How can the strike be won?

The ÖGB (Austrian trade union federation) says it is preparing for an autumn of struggle. On September 20th, there will be a “human chain against inflation and for higher wages” (a protest, but short of a demonstration) around the Austrian parliament – on exactly the same issues that workers at Ardo are striking for. Strikers’ representatives could address the workforces of other companies in the industry and the region (and beyond) at the protest and propose to build joint actions, including strikes, to defend living standards. This could increase pressure from below and prevent the workforce at Ardo from becoming isolated. For this, the Austrian union leaderships must make sure that it does not just talk about protests in autumn, but that there are company meetings in all workplaces to discuss whether they could follow the example of workers at Ardo.

At the beginning of the strike, the Pro-Ge union (the union of industry workers) organized a militant protest rally with shop stewards from other parts of industry at the factory gate, which shows the potential strength, both for a united struggle and for a militant strike at Ardo. Since then, however, the strike has hardly been in the public eye. A strike demonstration through the town (or possibly to the nearby Vienna suburbs) could give the strike further visibility. Andreas Babler, the new ‘left’ leader of the Social Democrats, and the representatives of the Communist Party, could take up the strike and bring it to the public and organize an effective solidarity campaign. Babler has already expressed solidarity with the strike and posted a solidarity video on Facebook. But that is only a small part of the public he can potentially reach.

The plant in Groß-Enzersdorf on the outskirts of Vienna has had a turbulent past: originally a factory owned by Iglo (a brand for deep frozen food) as part of the Unilever corporation. It was first outsourced to the subsidiary company Austria Frost, which was then sold to an Austrian company in 2001, which later filed for insolvency in 2005. After another change of ownership and renewed insolvency, the Belgian owned Ardo finally bought the frozen food production in 2008. Ardo is a multi-national operating 20 plants in nine countries with an annual turnover of 1.2 billion euros. Both Ardo and its predecessor continued to supply Iglo/Unilever. Ardo originally took over the plant in 2008, with 360 employees and 400 farmers delivering vegetables. Today there are only 150 employees and 300 suppliers (peas, carrots, spinach) to this plant. It is not that there is too little demand for food in Austria. However, in capitalism, production is based on “what is profitable”. The decline of the factory site is symptomatic of the decline of capitalism. We need a democratic socialist society, in which production is organized according to people’s needs rather than for profits.

Workers at Ardo are setting the pace that we need in an autumn of discontent: a determined fight for real wage increases – and, if necessary, against job cuts or workplace closures.

 

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