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Pension reform triggers Austria's first strike in 50 years

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 06, 2003

Austria is braced for its first general strike in more than 50 years, a protest against pension reforms sought by the ruling conservative-far-right coalition that would raise the retirement age and decrease pay-outs.

The powerful National Federation of Austrian Unions (OeGB), which is close to the opposition Social Democrats, has said it hopes 1 million of its 1.4 million members -- a quarter of the country's total workforce -- will heed the strike call.

A stoppage that began early this morning in Vienna left the capital and the key cities of Graz, Salzburg, Innsbruck and Linz without trains, buses or trams, witnesses and public radio reported.

The halt caused large traffic jams around Vienna.

Strikers set up road blocks on the country's main roads and shut three border crossings with Hungary, at Nickelsdorf, Klingenbach and Deutschkreuz, APA news agency reported.

Newspapers were absent from newsstands, as they had been yesterday.

The strike was expected later to paralyse air transport, postal services, banks, hotels, industry and commerce -- both private and public -- in a country where governments and unions generally prefer negotiation to confrontation.

Electricity, gas, telephone, Internet and emergency hospital services were expected to remain uninterrupted, as were final school exams.

But mobile telephone services might be disrupted if people saturate the networks during the expected morning rush hour snarl up, the authorities warned.

Austria has been a model of harmonious industrial relations, built on negotiation between workers, industrial leaders and government.

Among developed nations, only Japan has fewer strikes than Austria.

But talks between the government and the OeGB on the pension reforms broke down last month.

The OeGB plans to stage further protests against the planned pension reforms on May 13.

As in countries like France and Germany, Austria's current pay-as-you-go pension system is threatened by the combination of an aging population that requires more pension cash and a low birth rate, meaning fewer workers to pay contributions.

Conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel introduced a draft law on April 29 that seeks to prolong the period of pension contributions from 40 to 45 years. He is determined to present it to parliament on June 6.

The bill proposes raising the retirement age to 65 years, whereas at the moment most Austrian men retire at 59 and women at 57 years.

It would also change the way in which pension pay-outs are calculated by 2028, so that a monthly sum is worked out by taking an average of contributions over 40 years and not only the 15 last or most advantageous years.

Schuessel's reforms are designed to save the state 2.2 billion euros ($US 2.4 billion) over the next four years.

Yesterday, the influential populist politician Joerg Haider urged members of parliament from his extreme-right Freedom Party -- the junior partner in the government coalition -- to vote against the pension reforms, which he said would hit "little people" hardest.

It would only need a rebellion by six Freedom Party MPs to scupper the reform bill, a move that some commentators say would also destroy the fractious governing coalition.

But the chancellor is hoping protests against the pension reforms will rapidly peter out and become unpopular with the public.

If that were the case, it could undermine the OeGB's might and leave Schuessel with a free reign to implement the most unpopular structural reforms of the electoral programme that returned him to power last November.

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