The function of trade unions is to represent employees' interests in dealings with employers and with the government. Since in Austria that function is performed exclusively by the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, or ÖGB), it is a country where trade unionism is marked by an extremely high degree of unity. This is all the more noteworthy because Austria is a country where union pluralism is established as a constitutional right.
The ÖGB was founded in 1945 after the overthrow of the Nazi regime, as part of the reconstruction of Austria. Nowadays, it is subdivided into 14 member unions (Fachgewerkschaften) which between them cover all branches of the economy. Although the boundaries of these unions' respective domains are complementary, the system does not constitute industrial unionism in the strict sense of there being only one union for each sector and hence only one for each establishment. In the private sector, manual workers and white-collar workers are organized in separate unions. There are eight manual-worker unions (Metal, Mining and Power; Construction and Wood; Chemicals; Printing and Paper; Commerce, Transport and Communications; Agriculture, Food, Drink and Tobacco; Textiles, Clothing and Leather; and Hotels, Catering and Personal Services), while a single white-collar union, the GPA (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, i.e. Private-Sector White-Collar Workers' Union), covers all branches of the private sector. There is a tenth union which organizes both manual and white-collar workers in the arts, media and liberal professions. In the public sector, the pattern of union representation is modelled on the structure of the employing authorities: one union (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, i.e. Union of Public Employees) for employees of central government and the Land governments, plus three unions respectively organizing employees in the local municipal authorities, the postal and telecommunications sector and the railways. The largest of these 14 affiliated unions is the GPA, followed by the Union of Public Employees and the GMBE (Union of Manual Workers in the Metal, Mining and Power Industries).
According to the ÖGB's statutes, these affiliated unions are not independent associations but subunits of the ÖGB itself, which therefore exercises control over their finances, officials and negotiating function. This means that they collect subscriptions from their members in the name of the ÖGB, which also sets the level of subscriptions (currently 1% of an employee's gross pay); that in formal terms their full-time officials are employees of the ÖGB; and that only the ÖGB is authorized to conclude collective agreements. Thus, not only the trade union system itself as such but also the internal structures of the ÖGB exhibit a high degree of unity. In practice, however, the member unions possess greater autonomy than that laid down in the ÖGB's statutes. For example, the actual level of membership subscriptions varies slightly from one union to another; in reality the individual unions exercise authority with respect to full-time officials in their particular constituencies; and collective agreements are negotiated by the member unions and signed by them on behalf of the ÖGB.
The division of functions between the ÖGB and its member unions follows the principle that the former is responsible for issues that affect all employees, while the member unions each represent the specific interests of employees within their respective membership domains. This means, in practice, that the ÖGB concentrates on representing employees' interests vis-à-vis government and the state, while the member unions' activity is focused on collective bargaining (see collective bargaining system). The ÖGB itself negotiates collective agreements only in the exceptional case of what are called national general agreements (Generalkollektivverträge), i.e. cross-sector agreements which apply to more or less all branches of the economy for which collective agreements can be concluded. Since it is not customary for such agreements to be concluded on pay, collectively agreed pay policy falls within the member unions' sphere of autonomous action. However, guiding principles and priorities are discussed and decided within the framework of the ÖGB, which thereby exerts an indirect, co-ordinating influence on its member unions' pay bargaining policy.
As well as being subdivided into member unions, the ÖGB is also differentiated regionally, with a regional subunit called a Landesexekutive (Land executive committee) for each of Austria's Länder except for Vienna. These executive committees not only provide administrative services for the ÖGB itself and the member unions but also perform representative functions vis-à -vis the Land-level government bodies.
Underlying this formal subdivision into member unions and Land executive committees, on an informal level the ÖGB is also divided internally into ideological factions broadly mirroring the structure of Austria's party-political system, each linked to their corresponding party through members who simultaneously occupy posts in both union and party. With the exception of the Liberal Party, all parliamentary parties are represented in this way by factions within the ÖGB. As a result of these links, ÖGB representatives have regularly occupied parliamentary seats and government posts since 1945. Especially close links exist with the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), within which the union faction constitutes a strongly influential group. Conversely, the ÖGB is dominated by the social democratic faction. Its internal ideological division into political factions strengthens the motivation within the ÖGB to operate by compromise, i.e. attempting to ensure that decisions arrived at have the support of preferably all factions, in order to safeguard the organization's unity. This, in its turn, fosters an attitude of compromise towards external groups as well and therefore assists Austria's system of social partnership. The relative strength of the various political factions within the ÖGB is determined by the results of the works council elections, for which they each nominate their own lists of candidates. The dominance of the social democratic faction stems from the fact that it wins 65-70% of all votes in these elections. To that extent the works council elections also serve as a basis for the various levels of union representation within the ÖGB, although this is possible only because of the far-reaching integration of the works council with the union: some 87% of all works council members are also union members.
The ÖGB has over 1.5 million members. Excluding members who are not in active employment (retired workers, students, etc.), this signifies a union density of around 45%. The figure varies across employee categories and sectors of the economy; it is highest for manual workers in the secondary sector (manufacturing industry), followed by the public service, and relatively low for private-sector white-collar workers and for the service sector. Unionization is higher among men than women.