|Socialism Today Socialist Party magazine|
Austria: two years of reaction and resistance
ON 4 February 2000 the coalition government of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) was sworn in. Starting on 1 February, an opposition movement had already begun with daily protests. These reached a high point with a school students’ strike of 15,000 in Vienna on 18 February and a demonstration of up to 300,000 on the following day. After this, the weekly Thursday demos became the main focus of resistance.
The government did what we had warned it would, implementing a whole series of attacks on working-class living standards and working conditions. It increased the retirement age, raised taxes, reduced public-sector wages, and introduced charges in the health sector and college tuition fees. The government made changes to payments to mothers, forcing many out of work, cut back on public-sector childcare and attacked abortion rights. It passed anti-trade union legislation, mounted legal action against left activists, and introduced an ‘integration package’ which includes fines for immigrants who fail language tests.
Although some of the measures follow the familiar European-wide neo-liberal trend, the speed and aggression of their implementation is new to Austria. What has lagged behind is the fight against these measures. The wave of protests, which shook the country at the beginning of 2000, proved that Austrians do not have a special ‘passivity gene’. And, of course, it is a positive fact that on 24 January we marched on the 100th Thursday demonstration which was a small but lasting symbol of the struggle.
At the same time, we have to see that this is not enough. From the first day of protest Sozialistische LinksPartei (SLP – the Austrian section of the Committee for a Workers’ International) stressed the role the trade unions could play. They have the potential power to bring this government down. But the bureaucratic leadership does everything to stop activity from below.
Under rank-and-file pressure, the leaders were forced to organise some protests - participation in the large 19 February 2000 demo, a day of action and mass leafleting, another demonstration of 50,000 in July 2001, and a ballot of trade union members. With a 56.5% turnout (807,112 votes), 88% said yes to strike action. But instead of using this clear vote, the bureaucracy went back to the negotiating table and gave in to every bad ‘compromise’.
The government is potentially unstable because of its internal conflicts. These arise because the coalition represents different wings of the capitalist class with differing interests, for example, in relation to the proposed expansion of the European Union. It is especially tense because of the right-wing populist character of the FPÖ. On the one side, this party comes under pressure from its social base, the capitalists. And on the other, from its electoral base, which is in large proportion working class and the target of the government’s social cuts.
The coalition remains in power because of the lack of an alternative. In parliament, the social democrats and the Greens do not represent a viable alternative, and the extra-parliamentary forces hardly exist. The trade unions have stayed passive until now although, because of the effects of the economic crisis, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain this position. The ‘resistance movement’, apart from a small layer which is active, stopped being a serious force over one-and-a-half years ago.
On 24 January, the 100th Thursday demonstration, and on 2 February, the protest to mark the second anniversary of the government/resistance, several thousand people came onto the streets again. But the picture is confused. A layer of workers and young people learnt that protest is possible, that they can resist. This has changed Austria. On the other side, the fact that many people put a lot of energy in, but the government survived, led to a certain frustration. Some angry workers have left the trade unions.
Nonetheless, international developments have had an effect. Young people want to be active against capitalism and workers feel the grip of recession. The youth movement, International Socialist Resistance (ISR) is starting to mobilise for 15 March, the international day of action against cuts in education, just as the finance ministry is cutting the education budget.
SLP played an important role in the anti-government resistance movement and in other resistance activities for a long time. SLP members have even been fined for our activities. We supported every struggle against the FPÖ-ÖVP-government and stood in the Vienna elections in March 2001. The call for a new workers’ party as a real alternative to the government and a democratic and fighting opposition in the trade unions are central slogans of our work. First and foremost, we offer the SLP to all those who are not prepared to give in, and we link the fight against racism and social cuts with the fight for a socialist society.
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