Civil service strikes

Strike action affected parts of the Austrian civil service on 3 June 1997 and again on 16 June, but a strike of the entire civil service was averted. Further action was planned for 26 June, and there are no indications yet of how or when the dispute will be settled.

The high priority currently given to budget consolidation has been translated by the Austrian Government into, among other measures, a need to limit increases in civil service costs - currently ATS 215 billion per year - to no more than 1.3% annually. The Government is trying to achieve this aim by reducing the number of civil service employees, keeping salary increases moderate in real terms, and reducing pensions.

Strikes and negotiations

The Government's announcements on the above points have resulted in two strikes so far:

  1. On 3 June all the employees of the internal revenue collection service and a proportion of customs officials took strike action from 00.00 to 12.00 (AT9704114N). This warning strike involved about 12,000 people in very orderly action. The police force was also authorised to strike but did not participate after a meeting with the Government's negotiator on 20 May.
  2. On 16 June the same groups struck again, but now for the whole day. In addition the 1,700 employees of the Post Office Savings Bank (Postsparkasse, PSK) were called out on strike, but only 20% participated. The strike at the PSK was called off at noon after accusations of intimidation. A police car had been posted outside the bank's headquarters from early morning and a private security service had been hired to guard key installations inside because threats had been issued earlier to disrupt services. According to the works council chair, the guards were armed. Management insisted that the only "arms" were hand-held mobile telephones. According to the works council, all employees had been made to sign an undertaking that they would be willing to work on the day of the strike.

All strikes in the civil service have to be authorised by the 120-member central board of the Civil Service Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD). On 16 June, the board met, debating among other items a general strike in the civil service. Several groups were said to be exerting strong pressure for a broadly-based strike, among them the internal revenue employees, army employees, and federal teachers. This was averted in favour of other options. The board passed a motion canceling further talks with the Government's negotiator including the session set for that night, and called instead for an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, and the negotiator who is the junior minister in the ministry of finance.

The negotiations over a new pay deal between local authority employees - who are organised in a separate union, the Local Authority Service Trade Union (Gewerkschaft der Gemeindebediensteten, GGB) - and the Government, which were to start on 17 June, were canceled. The trade union made it clear that the negotiations would be started under the threat of a strike, not because of the cancellation of the talks, but in order to make sure that a salary increase in real terms was granted. Leading members of the social democrat-led trade union voiced strong discontent with the social democrat-led Government, and also mentioning the option of leaving the party before next year's works council elections.

On 18 June, the board of the internal revenue section of the GÖD decided to maintain the pressure by announcing a demonstration outside the Ministry of Finance on 26 June at noon.

On 19, June the provincial assembly of Lower Austria passed a bill amending the conditions of service and remuneration of local authority employees in the province. Lower Austria is Austria's second most populous province (after Vienna) and entirely surrounds Vienna. These regulations do not actually set salaries, but rather the positions and job titles to which salaries are attached. Trade unionists hailed the regulations as a performance-related, modern model of public sector remuneration.

Also on 19 June, the Government and the GÖD agreed a date for the high-level talks demanded three days earlier. The meeting will take place on 27 June at the prime minister's office. Five members of the Government will be present, plus the GÖD's relevant top-level officials along with those of the GGB and those of the Posts and Telecommunications Service Trade Union (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten). These will include the chair of the internal revenue section, whose problems will form part of the agenda. As a result the demonstration planned for 26 June was suspended, though not permanently canceled.

When the original decision to strike was taken by the GÖD's central board on 12 May, the issues were mainly staffing and a real salary increase. However, when the government returned from its 10-11 June budget seminar, pensions became not only an additional issue, but virtually a central one.

The nature of civil service employment

It is not clear if civil servants are legally permitted to strike. Various laws and regulations, one of them dating as far back as 1914, have been pointed to by lawyers, as ruling out civil service strikes. However, the Government has shown no inclination to address the issue. Even if striking amounts to unauthorised absence from work, it makes little difference, because during the first three days of absence, the civil servants' salary continue to be paid.

Not all civil service employees are civil servants. An increasing number are so-called contract employees, who are not formally protected against dismissal, cannot rise to positions of responsibility, and receive lower salaries and substantially lower pensions. In Vienna, for instance, half the city's 80,000 employees are contract employees. At the PSK, only 512 of the federal employees are civil servants, and 1,170 are contract employees. In addition, the civil service has gradually begun to make use of freelancers on contract (Werkvertrag) but these are not counted among the number of employees, as they are legally self-employed.

At the same time, not all civil servants are included in the civil service payroll. The federal service in 1994 had the equivalent of 239,232 full-time employees. In addition there were about 65,000 employees of the federal railway company, which had been hived off at the beginning of the year but whose employees, if they had been civil servants, remained in that position. This was also true, for instance, for the roughly 4,200 employees of the Public Employment Service (Arbeitsmarktservice, AMS).

Salaries

The Government has repeatedly stated that civil service salaries will rise only very moderately in 1998, while the GÖD has always maintained that there has to be a rise in real incomes. The issue is complicated by the income gap between civil servants and contract employees. The Government is clearly willing to improve the situation of the latter in its bid to make contract status normal in the civil service, and civil servant status the exception. However, apparently it wishes both to keep the salaries of civil servants at their current level (in real terms) and to reduce the number of civil servants, in order to free money for better salaries and more employment of contract employees. The GÖD is clearly opposed to such a "zero-sum game": one of its primary aims is to protect the lifetime incomes (including pensions) of civil servants.

Salaries were also an issue at the PSK. However, because the bank's employees earn considerably better incomes than civil servants in the state administration, and because of the gradual proliferation of contract employees, it was foremost the latter's lower incomes that were at issue. The demands centred on a system of income supplements tied to functions.

Furthermore, salaries are the chief issue among police officers, and teachers on federal pay are seeing their salaries under threat as a greater number of pupils makes more teachers necessary without more funds becoming available from the budget.

Pensions

According to the government, federal civil service pensioners receive on average ATS 33,000 gross per month. Local authority civil servants receive ATS 24,000. The average pensioner who was not a civil servant receives ATS 18,000 gross per month. Upon retirement, civil servants are not entitled to severance pay but their pension conditions are better. While private employees receive at maximum 80% of the average of their 15 best years of income, civil servants receive 80% of their final salary. This is to be changed. From 1999, the Government wants to substitute an average for the final salary, beginning with the two best years and adding one more year every year until 15 years are reached in 2012. The GÖD interprets this intention as a broken promise because it feels that the Government had made a commitment not to diminish pensions during its legislative term, ie until 2000.

The Government, when it presented its pension ideas, gave examples of their effects. It argued that a monthly pension entitlement of ATS 60,000 under the current regulations would be reduced to ATS 50,000 for a new pensioner in 2012 or to ATS 58,700 for a new pensioner in 2002, but a current entitlement of ATS 28,000, as would be typical for a police officer, would only be reduced to ATS 26,000 or ATS 27,800, respectively, per month.

At the PSK, the creation of a pension fund for contract employees was the main pensions-related issue.

Employment

In order to reach its budget aims, the Government has to reduce the number of civil service employees by about 9,000 per year. In addition it wishes gradually to substitute contract employees for civil servants. At the same time, however, the Government, partly also as part of current austerity packages, has kept sending legislation to Parliament that increases the workload of the civil service. The GÖD wants between 300 and 500 additional employees in the internal revenue collection service - an issue over which negotiations started in March 1996. The union also wants more teachers.

Commentary

The discontent in the civil service appears to arise mainly from a feeling of unfair treatment. Civil servants feel they have been bearing the brunt of the 1996-7 austerity package and that the promise of no further austerity is being broken. In addition, there is now a feeling that the Government is no longer loyal to its servants and makes them subject to public scapegoating. The top-level meeting scheduled for 27 June will first of all have to re-establish faith that a fair deal can in fact be reached. To this end, more comprehensive reforms may prove to be necessary. A reduction in the number of civil service employees will no doubt have to be accompanied by far more professional management in the civil service, by pronounced investment in equipment and even more in (new) skills, and by a meaningful commitment to a reduction of tasks and of duplication of work. (August Gächter, IHS)

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