The system of public-law bodies which by European standards are an institution unique to Austria in that membership is obligatory (and which are therefore referred to generically as gesetzliche Interessenvertretungen, i.e. representative bodies established by statute law). Their membership domains, powers and responsibilities, internal structure and financing are laid down by statute. Particular Chambers exist for almost all interest groups in the economically active sector, i.e. employers, employees and also a range of liberal professions (such as doctors, lawyers and architects). The most important groups for whom no special Chamber exists are public employees and executive staff. Both individuals and legal entities falling within the domain of a Chamber are all de jure members of that Chamber. The Chambers are financed from contributions paid by their members, and membership of their representative bodies is based on internal elections held at regular intervals. Internally, the Chambers are subdivided into regional and/or sectoral subunits grouped under the umbrella of a federal organization.
The three leading Chambers are: the Economic Chamber of Austria (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, or WKÖ); the Federal Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, or BAK); and the Standing Committee of Presidents of the Chambers of Agriculture (Präsidentenkonferenz der Landwirtschaftskammern, or PKLWK). It is a feature of the Austrian system that the WKÖ functions not only as a trade association but also as an employers' organization (see collective bargaining system).
The Chamber system is an important institutional expression of the principle of self-administration and subsidiarity, i.e. that public functions should be carried out at as close a level as possible to the individuals affected. In accordance with this principle the Chambers have two basic tasks: to represent their members' interests and to participate in state regulatory functions. As regards the representation of interests, it is their responsibility to unify the various group interests within their membership and to represent these unified interests in external dealings with third parties. Their involvement in state regulatory functions includes, firstly, participation in their interest representation capacity in the formulation and implementation of government decisions, for which they have a statutory right to be consulted by the public authorities on all issues affecting their members' interests in broadly defined areas of economic and social policy. In certain matters (e.g. in connection with the collection of statistics) they also function as public administrative bodies. In this administrative function (“delegated sphere of activity”) the Chambers are subject to government authority; in other matters (“own sphere of activity”) they are autonomous.
This dual function makes the Chambers a central connecting link between civil society and the state. The supreme manifestation of the close ties between society and the state in Austria is its system of social partnership, within which industrial relations and other areas of economic and social policy are synchronized. The WKÖ, BAK and PKLWK play a major role in that system. See also Chambers of Labour, Economic Chambers.))