Austria: Metal workers strike over pay

There is yet another “strike week” in Austria – similar to last year, but with slightly different sectors involved. The metal industry which had held warning strikes last week is holding one day strikes in different companies spread out over this week. In addition, workers in the retail sector had a demonstration in Vienna of roughly 1,500 people.

There are other sectors which are still in negotiations which could add to the mix in the coming weeks. In the media the collective bargaining contract was cancelled by the bosses which was answered by a strike threat. In the face of the metal strikes this cancellation has now been withdrawn by the media bosses – an indication that strike action can be successful and that the strikes in the metal sector have an effect well beyond their sector.

There was also yet another demonstration by delivery workers, as there had been in 2022. The breweries who had struck last year are the only ones who have got an agreement by now and they won a raise just above average yearly inflation – probably because the bosses feared that there would be strikes again. In the summer we saw an indefinite strike at Ardo, ( which unfortunately was not successful due to several factors. With only a third of the workforce on strike, the strikers were to an extent isolated. After two weeks of being on strike, the struggle broke down without getting the pay rise that had been demanded. Ardo is a warning of what will happen if the fears for jobs of part of the workforce are not included as demands of defending jobs through the strike itself.

Inflation in Austria has been above EU-average in the recent year; yearly average inflation is now at 9,6%, which is the threshold for any wage raises and what the union leaders are aiming at. Last year, the tactic of aiming for matching the previous year’s inflation has meant that the wage rises were lower than the actual price rises. However now with inflation going down, it means catching up to overcome last year’s cut in real pay has to be fought for. And this is what is happening now – the trade union leaders are under pressure to deliver.

The metal sector last year had had raises of roughly 7% (after pulling back from a strike threat) and they expect to get what they lost out on last year. The metal sector, with around 130,000 workers, usually sets the bar for the other sectors that follow. It is traditionally the best organised sector and most effective in terms of the weight of strikes. The fact that they haven’t come to an agreement yet is the reason why the retail bosses are hesitant to make an offer as they fear they might be above the metal result. 

Especially in the metal sector it seems that the bosses are willing to risk a confrontation as their orderbooks are less full than last year and strikes could be less costly for them. The mood, on the other hand, is quite heated. There have been comments on the ÖGB (Austrian trade union federation) FB account by workers that they should strike for a whole week, which would be a big issue in Austria. The ÖGB had organised a union demonstration in late September in which the mood had been already one calling for action. 

It cannot be ruled out that the one day strikes will not be enough to secure an acceptable settlement and that the new PRO-GE (metal workers’ union) leader Reinhold Binder’s threat of unlimited strike action in the following week actually will have to be realised. This is risky though and means that the workforce has to be well prepared and mobilised. The lessons of the Ardo strike need to be learned to make sure such a strike is solid. It is also possible that a settlement could include shorter hours in exchange for a lower than expected wage rise. While shorter hours need to be fought for, it needs to be a shortening of working hours with full compensation of pay that also compensates for inflation, not shorter hours with real wage losses. People need to pay their bills. 

What was significant is that contrary to last year, some of the strikes in the metal sector this year include picket lines, demonstrations and strike committees, a feature that had been missing from last year’s strikes in the railways and other sectors. The retail sector is not well organised but they are the largest sector in Austria and employ a lot of young workers. When we spoke to a young supermarket worker about the wage rounds, he said excitedly that “there is a protest next week” which he had planned to attend but then he was disappointed to see that he had missed it. Retail workers on that demonstration were saying that they had had enough and that it is time for strikes. In 2022, there was a strike threat in the retail sector, but a last minute agreement was struck as a retail strike could have been the fourth sector strike in the “strike week” around 19th November that year.

For coordinated joint action!

Sozialistische Offensive (CWI Austria) took part in a warning strike demonstration of the metal sector in Vienna, as well as the retail workers’ demonstration. We are arguing for coordinated joint action so that the different sectors can’t be played against one another and so that weaker sectors get a raise above inflation too. 

These struggles now take place against the background of “left winger” Andreas Babler having been confirmed as leader of the social democrat SPÖ at its November party congress. But Babler, in preparation for the congress, pulled back on his demand for a 32-hour-week; it is still mentioned in the party programme but in a weaker form of having “pilot programmes” for a 32-hour-week instead of a collective struggle for it. While Babler succeeded in passing his demand for a direct vote over the party chair position by the membership, which is seen as a way of circumventing the position of the undemocratic party apparatus dominated by pro-capitalist forces like those around SPÖ Vienna mayor Michael Ludwig and SPÖ Burgenland head Ernst Doskozil. However this means that the party leader is independent of the party congress and could in future be used by the right wing.

The Communist party, which had seen successes in the regional elections in Salzburg last year with 11% of the vote at the time, is preparing for the general election due to take place in 2024. While it peaked in the polls in spring at 7%, it is now down to 3% in the polls because of Babler’s appeal. Yet, the Babler’s SPÖ is stagnating between 23% and 25%, which is still quite far away from the far right FPÖ’s 29 to 32% in the polls. This is also down to people not having forgiven SPÖ Wien for raising rents and energy prices in the course of the energy and cost of living crisis. Babler would have to learn the lessons of Corbyn and mobilise to kick the pro-capitalist elements of the party apparatus out of the party to completely transform it. As he has been voted in partly by the SPÖ Vienna wing against the Wagenknecht style Doskozil wing, he is hesitant in doing that and avoiding doing things to anger Ludwig and SPÖ Vienna. 

This is one of the reasons the CP is still holding up relatively well – the threshold for entering parliament is at 4%, and they are not far away from that. Their support can be temporary though, if they fail to deliver. In Styria, the CP is in a pro-capitalist coalition with SPÖ and the Greens and, while having raised rents at only 2% (compared to 8.6% in Vienna) they do try to stick to the budget, which means they had started to not fill vacant positions in the public sector. 

While last year’s struggles and the general crisis of capitalism have expressed themselves in the election of Babler as SPÖ chair and the CP election result in Salzburg, and while this is continuing to provide an important background to the current phase of struggle, the FPÖ is still leading the polls. This is also down to the crisis of the conservative ÖVP and Green led government which is staggering along and frustrates people. What we see now is a polarisation which sees on the one end the success of the FPÖ and on the other end a discussion about Marxism in reaction to Babler’s victory and the CP’s gains. The FPÖ will not be stopped though by a coalition of SPÖ, Greens and neoliberal Neos, as Babler is promoting, nor will it be stopped by another SPÖ-ÖVP coalition. It can only be stopped by getting rid of capitalism and establishing a genuine socialist society. This is why we fight for a revitalised and expanded workers’ movement campaigning for a socialist programme.

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November 2023