New trade union clears first hurdle

The formation of a trade union in Austria outside the ÖGB confederation appears likely by 1 May 1998. The precise name of the new union is still subject to legal action, and its admission to the collective bargaining process is highly uncertain.

In August 1997 the authorities rejected a bid made by a group of activists from the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) to form an association called the Austrian Free Trade Union (Freie Gewerkschaft Österreichs, FGÖ) (AT9705113N). They argued that its proposed name might give rise to confusion with a social democrat organisation, the Austrian Federation of Free Trade Unions (Österreichischer Bund freier Gewerkschaften, ÖBFG). The ÖBFG is dormant but social democrat trade unionists have kept the name alive in order to have something to fall back on in case the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), the sole formal trade union existing in Austria, should ever disband.

However, the Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium für Inneres, BMI) reversed this decision on 11 February 1998. The activists thereupon named late April 1998 as the likely time for their official founding conference and 1 May 1998 as the launch date. However, the chair of the social democrat caucus in the ÖGB immediately announced that his organisation will appeal to the courts for an injunction against the use of the name. There was still the danger of confusion, he argued, and it would be more honest to call the new union "liberal" (freiheitlich) rather than "free". The ÖGB, also on 11 February, made public a letter the prospective FGÖ chairman had written to enterprises asking for financial support.

The FGÖ is planning to offer membership at a fee of between ATS 50 and ATS 70 per month. The police will be its first recruitment target because this is where the liberal caucus within the ÖGB has had its greatest successes. However, once it is founded the FGÖ will have to clear another big hurdle on the path to political relevance. The right to conclude collective agreements is tied to a number of requirements. If the FGÖ does not succeed in its bid, there may be a danger that it will behave like an "opposition party" and brand any collective agreement concluded by the ÖGB as inimical to workers. It might thus force the ÖGB to fight for higher wage settlements than it would have agreed to without competition. Generally, the ÖGB has been highly responsive to macroeconomic concerns in its wage demands.

The president of the ÖGB has announced that dual membership in both the ÖGB and the FGÖ will not be possible.

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