Austrian working class gives impressive sign of life

Last Thursday, October 13, strikes in the metal industry in Austria started. 200 workplaces involving 100,000 (out of 165,000) metal workers all over Austria went on strike, took part in work stoppages or held workplace meetings that day and the following Friday. The strike action is likely to be continued on Monday, October 17.

Under huge pressure from below, the leadership of the PRO-GE metal workers’ trade union had to break off the wage negotiations. The employers were only willing to grant a pay rise of 3.65%. The strike is an impressive sign of life from the potentially strong Austrian working class, and proves the idea that “there cannot be strikes in Austria” is false. These were the first warning metal industry strikes since 1986, while the last longer strike by metal workers was nearly 50 years ago in 1962. Even the bourgeois media speak of “the end of social partnership” (the policy of conciliation with the bosses that the trade union leadership had been acting out for years) and that “harder times need new (harsher) rituals” (‘Die Presse’ und ‘Wiener Zeitung’).

The demand of the metal workers union is for a 5.5% pay rise. The original demand of the union leadership at the beginning of the negotiations was 3%, a ridiculously low one given average inflation of over 3% in 2011. Under pressure from the rank and file and in fear of losing members, the trade union leaders had to raise this demand by 2.5% - despite the announcement of lower growth prospects for 2012 in the meantime! The union leaders announced this new demand in a press conference – something that was not in line with their usual method of conducting secret negotiations.

Workplace meetings had been held before the break off of the negotiations on Wednesday, 12th October. The first warning strikes took place the next day in more than 150 workplaces all over Austria. On the Friday temporary work stoppages followed and the number of workplaces involved in strike action increased to 200. In Vienna the Opel/GM plant held a 24 hour strike action on Friday/Saturday. In Linz the VOEST (former state steel works) held workplace meetings. In Styria, like Upper Austria a stronghold of the metal industry, 55 workplaces involving 14,300 workers went on strike, including big workplaces like the Böhler steel works (also on a 24 hour strike), Magna Steyr and Andritz. Other workplaces involved in strike action were Bosch Thyssen Krupp, Schindler, BMW, Otis, MAN and BMW.

The mood amongst the metal workers seems to be radical, support for the strike is solid. The bosses seem to be using methods of intimidation (threats of losing not only the jobs but also unemployment pay, social insurance etc.), that only further heat up the mood. CWI members went to the Opel works in Vienna and discussed with striking workers. They report that you could almost feel the relief in the workplace that “finally something is done”. Workers say “5.5% is the lower end - we would prefer 10%”. One worker said “They made so much profit during the last years, we also want our share”. Many are fed up with years of compromises and losses in real wages. They are aware of the significance of the strike and them being a role model for other sections of the workforce. There is determination that “this time we have to go through with this”. Even temporary workers want to join in the strike. There is also distrust towards the union leadership - many fear that the trade union leaders will give in again. One worker stated that “it is us who have to keep them from giving, hope is not enough!"

The Socialist Left Party’s (SLP - CWI in Austria) leaflet was warmly welcomed by Opel workers, not one was thrown on the floor, many workers started reading immediately. Workers are happy about the support. We raised the importance of taking the struggle from the workplace to the streets in demonstrations to broaden the struggle and include supporters from other sections of the working class, demanding a one day full strike with demonstrations as a next step. On our initiatives, metal workers will take part in activities on the international day of action on October 15. We also raised the need of a strike committee being democratically elected, democratic workplace meetings and the meetings being organised from below to discuss next steps and how to escalate the struggle – proposals that are in tune with the workers’ mood, they say that the meetings are organised top down, that no one informs them what the next steps will be.

Other demands include:

  • that the negotiations are held publically so that workers and the public are informed what happens and so that they can keep a check on the trade union leaders
  • that the companies’ books are opened so that workers can check where the money goes
  • that any results of negotiations are subject to a vote by the workers. No more rotten compromises!

There seems to be wide support in the working class for the strike - the metal workers traditionally start the wage negotiations, their result usually sets the trend for the other wage rounds. It cannot be ruled out that other sections of the working class follow with higher demands or join in strike action. Significantly workers of Wien Energie (the council owned energy company of Vienna) are due to join in strike action on Monday October 17. This support is reflected by the fact that even parts of the bourgeois media cannot do their usual anti-strike propaganda as offensively as they would like to, especially those writing for a working class audience have to be at least sympathetic towards the strike. There is a broad understanding that real wages have stagnated during the last few years. This is a result of years of low pay rises negotiated by the trade union leadership.

The fact that the argument of the looming crisis did not stop the workers from pressing for a high demand is also quite significant. It indicates that the workers have drawn conclusions from what happened in 2008/9, when there was only a wage rise of 3.6% in 2008 (before the crisis hit) and a meagre 1.5% in 2009 recession (2010 saw only a wage rise of 2.5%). The feeling is that workers held back with demands in the crisis and were not paid back during the ‘recovery’ (as in Germany there had been a growth of roughly 3% in 2010/11).

However these strikes are taking place against a background of looming crisis - the prospects for growth in 2012 were halved in the latest prognosis, during the last week two major Austrian banks had to announce losses of almost 1 billion euro each due to losses in Central and Eastern Europe. All this is in addition to the wider euro crisis. The established parties are increasingly unpopular, after a flood of corruption cases many people believe that politicians as such are corrupt.

The strike will have an immense impact on consciousness of the working class in Austria. Strike as a method of struggle is back on the agenda. It was first put there in the strikes against pension cuts in 2003, but the fact that that struggle was lost due to the betrayal of the trade union leadership meant also a setback for consciousness and that there was an ebb in class struggle up to now. This is why it is extremely important whether this struggle will be successful.

But even now, it can have an effect on consciousness. Support for the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) had been up to 27% during the last few months. But the FPÖ itself did not say anything about the strike, no word of support and their bosses’ organisation (usually the more radical wing of the bourgeoisie) came out openly against the strike. With class divisions coming to the fore again, it will become more easy not only to show whose interests the FPÖ really represents but also to argue for class unity and overcome racist divisions as consciousness develops in class struggle.

Also the question of workers’ political representation can be put on the agenda again. Parts of the SPÖ Social Democrat party (especially in Lower Austria) supported the strike, but the SPÖ national leadership remained silent - knowing it will be on the side of the bosses when it comes to wage negotiations in the public sector. This is because the SPÖ is not only leading the national coalition government, but is also in several regional and local governments, including Vienna’s. The need both for a fighting union leadership and for a party genuinely representing the interests of the working class will become clearer as struggle evolves.

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