Trade union reorganisation in Austria: negotiating the obstacles

The 14 trade unions that make up the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) have been required since 1995 to reorganise themselves into three units, based on manufacturing, services and public services respectively. They are proceeding cautiously. Instead of mergers they have been entering alliances, and only in spring 1998 has the reform process picked up momentum.

The debate over the reorganisation of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) received a new impetus in spring 1998. On the one hand, individual trade unions began to negotiate and to forge alliances, and on the other hand anticipated resistance erupted more forcefully and thus also more publicly than had been expected. The issue also became enmeshed in a debate over strategies to counter the decline in membership and revenue.

Membership

In May 1998 a press report appeared containing preliminary 1997 trade union membership figures attributed to the chair of the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), a vice-president of the ÖGB. Official figures will not be known until late June or July. By this early reckoning, membership appears to have declined by another 30,000 in the course of 1997, from a peak of 1,641,841 at the end of 1990 to about 1,513,000 at the end of 1997. This is a reduction of 7.8%, and of 1.9% in 1997 alone. The total labour force stands at about 3.2 million, though the union membership figure is not directly comparable to the labour force because it also contains pensioners.

Some of the ÖGB's member trade unions fared considerably worse than the federation overall. The GPA, the single largest member of the ÖGB, lost about 13,500 (-4.3%) of its membership and is now down to about 302,000. The Union of Chemical Workers (Gewerkschaft der Chemiearbeiter), after acrimonious internal struggles, lost about 10%, and now stands at 39,182 members. The Union of Construction and Timber Workers (Gewerkschaft Bau-Holz, GBH) lost 2.4%, now standing at 171,146 members after a peak of 187,221 in 1994, and the Union of Metal, Mining, and Energy Workers (Gewerkschaft Metall-Bergbau-Energie, GMBE) lost 2.0% to stand at 206,241 members. These losses do not impair the ÖGB's ability to negotiate collective agreements or to influence policy making. The public sector trade unions are likely to have done better than the ÖGB overall. The Civil Service Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD) is reporting net growth in its three teachers' sections in 1998 in connection with recent industrial activity (AT9805183F).

Signs of alienation?

A larger problem perhaps than the numbers is the distance between the works council members - the true base of ÖGB activity - and the leadership. During its 13th conference, held at the end of May 1998, the GPA's Industry Section - which has 89,700 members, 12,000 fewer than four years ago - presented a survey, professionally carried out, of the 8,070 works council members within its ambit. Of these, 63% considered themselves not part of the trade union movement or only marginally so, whilst 90% thought that they had no or very little influence within the trade union. In the GPA, a debate was initiated about strategy and organisation. The current organisation is thought to be oriented too much towards large enterprises and is therefore missing most of the vast number of employees in small enterprises. Furthermore, it wants a more active role in the ÖGB for unemployed people and for immigrants. In the GPA itself, while traditions will be honoured, this might conceivably lead to a redrawing of the boundaries between the six sections or to a total restructuring.

Reorganisation

The GPA's initiatives are also a reaction to conflicts associated with the reorganisation that the ÖGB is undergoing. The ÖGB's aim - agreed at its 1995 congress - is to reduce the number of individual trade unions from the current 14 to only three: manufacturing, services and public service. Since there are trade unions, especially the GPA, straddling the divide between services and manufacturing, reaching this goal could mean breaking them up. This would be all the easier if the remaining legal differences between waged and salaried employees were removed, a process currently under negotiation (AT9801160N). The GPA's Industry Section might conceivably be moved to the GMBE, usually regarded as the core of the future manufacturing trade union (AT9801161N). The issue received much public attention when the chief secretary of the Industry Section was suspended by the GPA chair and the section president for about two weeks in late March and early April 1998, allegedly over his too-close cooperation with the GMBE. It was vocal resistance by chairs of works councils that ended the suspension. One answer to the threat of being broken up is to alter the internal organisation of the GPA - that is, to diffuse the boundaries of the Industry Section.

Eight of the 14 ÖGB trade unions are smaller than the GPA's Industry Section by itself. It is perhaps from such a background that the Industry Section, at its 13th conference, decided to demand a seat of its own on the ÖGB's reorganisation committee.

Meanwhile, the GPA has begun to cast doubt on the usefulness of the three-union model. It argues that close cooperation and networking among trade unions is entirely sufficient, while full-scale reorganisation may be counterproductive.

Nonetheless, the reorganisation desired by the ÖGB leadership is picking up momentum. The Trade and Transport Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Handel, Transport, Verkehr, HTV) - with about 36,000 members - announced on 28 May 1998 that it will form an alliance with the Hotels, Restaurants, Personal Services Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Hotel, Gastgewerbe, persönlicher Dienst, HGPD) - about 51,000 members - and the Railway Employees Trade Union (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner) - about 108,000 members. The Arts, Media and Free Professions Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Kunst, Medien, freie Berufe, KMfB) - about 16,000 members - discussed but did not decide upon its options at its conference in mid-June 1998. These range from: joining the alliance between the Printing and Paper Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Druck und Papier) - 19,000 members - and the Union of Posts and Telecommunications Employees (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten) - 80,000 members; to the formation of a Communications Trade Union; to a close association with the GPA; to dissolving the KMfB and leaving its sections to join other trade unions. The Textiles and Garments Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Textil und Bekleidung) - 22,000 members - and the GMBE - 210,000 members - had announced earlier that they would merge (AT9801161N).

Commentary

The ÖGB is strong in large enterprises, most of which used to be state-owned. Those in manufacturing have been privatised since the mid-1980s but services - such as the post office, telecommunications, broadcasting and the railways - are only gradually being privatised, partly by removing the state monopoly and partly by selling the state-owned corporations. State ownership and the ÖGB's central position in the Austrian state contributed to high rates of membership. The ÖGB is still adjusting to the change in ownership. Significantly, both civil service trade unions - the GÖD and the Community Employees Trade Union (Gewerkschaft der Gemeindebediensteten, GdG) - saw their membership peak in 1995, five years later than the ÖGB overall, with only very gradual declines since.

The "three-pillar model" of reorganisation was always meant as a roundabout way of slicing up the GPA. With its sole focus on salary earners (that is, white-collar workers), it organises those employees whom industrial workers often experience as their immediate superiors. Furthermore, salaries are on average considerably higher than wages. This makes the GPA a substantial net contributor financially to the ÖGB and invests it with a degree of power other trade unions sometimes resent. The GPA has arguably reminded the others of this position none too subtly. However, this is a dangerous card to play because not all sections of the GPA have an equally prosperous membership. Banking and insurance employees are among the best paid in the country, in sharp contrast to the constituents of the Trade Section. If the GPA made too much play of its financial clout, then so might some of its sections internally. (August Gächter, IHS)

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