Conflicts highlight regulation of industrial disputes

In late June 2000, Austrian trade unions held a nationwide "day of action" in opposition to the welfare reform plans of the right-wing government. The action included the first strikes held in Austria for some years, and confrontation is likely to continue. The dispute has focused attention on important aspects of the regulation of strikes.

There is widespread consensus among the Austrian social partners that strikes and other forms of industrial action should be prevented. However, recent debates about the current government's reform plans, especially those relating to pensions and expenditure cuts in the social welfare system, have disrupted the consensual atmosphere severely and resulted in strikes and other action by the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and its affiliates. The issue of industrial conflict and its regulation has thus been highlighted, as have ÖGB's internal regulations on strikes.

Action against government plans

On 28 June 2000, ÖGB held a "day of action" in response to the cuts in the welfare system announced by the coalition government of the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) and the conservative People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) (AT0002212F). The numerous actions organised by ÖGB included warning strikes by the Union of Railway Employees (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner, GdE), with all trains in Austria halted for an hour, and the holding of 26 "company meetings" in Vienna local transport, in which about 4,000 employees participated.

The main reason for the rail workers' strike was government proposals for changes to their pension system. Pension provisions are still comparatively favourable for rail workers, who may retire after only 35 years of employment. Accordingly, the average retirement age for rail workers is 54.4 years, compared with 57.5 for white- and blue-collar workers in the private sector. The specific employment status and privileges of rail workers came under attack from the mid-1990s, when they ceased to be civil servants, onwards (TN0003402S). In 1997, the ÖVP/ Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) government of the day launched an attempt to reform the retirement regulations for rail workers, and in the course of the subsequent negotiations, GdE accepted higher pension contributions instead of an earlier retirement age (AT9712152N). Against the background of this deal with the former government, GdE sees the reforms recently proposed by the new right-wing administration as a clear breach of existing agreements and of trust by the government. The strike on 28 June was the first conducted by Austrian rail workers since 1965.

The goal of the company meetings held by unions in public transport in Vienna was also to express opposition to the measures announced by the government. In addition to general concerns about the decline of the social welfare system, those participating also expressed specific concerns over a deterioration of employment conditions in public transport, such as expected pay reductions for new recruits and measures such as the abolition of paid breaks.

The leadership of the Union of Public Services (Gewerkschaft öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD), which represents federal and provincial government employees, is considering the strategies it should deploy against the government, after the failure of negotiations over new pension regulations for public employees. The possible strategies include strikes and other forms of action, with the union preparing itself for a "collision course" with the government.

Industrial action and the law

Despite the comprehensive regulation of other aspects of industrial relations in Austria, legislation does not cover industrial disputes directly, nor is there any Supreme Court case-law on the subject. In legal terms, no clear principles are laid down for assessing the lawfulness and the consequences of industrial disputes. Legislation refers to strikes only in some rare cases - most notably, a law provides that unemployment benefit recipients may refuse to work in companies affected by strikes. In fact, there are so few strikes in Austria (see the table below) that the issue has never troubled the legislature or courts. ÖGB regards the neutrality of the state in industrial conflicts and the right of freedom of association as the principal regulations that guarantee the right to strike in Austria.

Industrial disputes in Austria, 1955-99
Year Workers involved Workers involved per 1,000 employees Working hours lost Non-union strikes as % of hours lost
1955-9* 32,913 15.2 562,080 13.2
1960-9* 62,880 26.8 114,905 3.3
1970-9* 11,028 4.2 135,222 17.6
1980-9* 3,715 4.2 51,793 1.2
1990 5,274 1.8 70,962 0.0
1991 92,707 30.9 466,731 0.0
1992 18,039 5.9 181,502 0.0
1993 7,512 2.5 131,363 0.0
1994 0 0.0 0 0.0
1995 60 0.0 894 0.0
1996 0 0.0 0 0.0
1997 25,800 8.6 153,000 0.0
1998 0 0.0 0 0.0
1999 0 0.0 0 0.0

* Annual average figures

Source:"Still the country of corporatism", Franz Traxler, (1995), p. 251;"Wirtschafts- und sozialstatistisches Taschenbuch 2000", BAK (2000).

ÖGB strike rules and strike pay

For a strike to be held, the constitution of ÖGB lays down a specific procedure, and industrial action thus requires the decision of specific ÖGB governing bodies. Strike ballots among union members are not mentioned in the federation's constitution.

According toÖGB's constitution, all planned strikes and lock-outs have to be reported to the presidium (Präsidium) in time, so that it is able to call a meeting of the federal executive board (Bundesvorstand), which is responsible for the necessary preparations and for initiating appropriate measures, with the consent of the relevant affiliated union. Furthermore, the executive board passes resolutions regarding proposed strikes, if they concern the general union movement or the public interest. The board comprises not only the members of the presidium (the president, vice-presidents and other top officials), but also a number of representatives of the individual unions, with representation depending on the size of their membership. In addition, the local secretaries (Bezirkssekretariate) of affiliated unions are obliged to report wage developments, strikes, lock-outs and other important events to ÖGB.

Members of the unions affiliated toÖGB who participate in a strike and who lose income as a consequence receive strike pay funded by the federation. An application has to be made within three months of the event. This compensation may only be paid to members who participate in a strike officially recognised byÖGB.

Strike pay is granted to members who have paid membership dues for three months. The weekly amount of compensation is 12 times the average monthly subscription paid in the three months before the strike. This assistance should compensate the employees for their loss of income, but in effect it covers the cost of living only. Strike pay stops at the end of the strike. The beginning and the duration of a strike is determined by the relevant governing body of the union (board or presidium). The same strike pay rules apply in the case of lock-outs of employees.

Commentary

Despite the widespread rejection of the government's reform measures, the impact of the unions' protest actions on 28 June was only limited. Opinion polls suggest that the public was divided in its perception of the strike action. Since some heavily criticised reform initiatives (on pensions, for example) have recently been passed in parliament without the social partners' consent, and the government is determined to push through its reform programme even against trade union resistance, further conflicts and industrial action are likely. (Angelika Stückler, University of Vienna)

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