Dispute over railway restructuring

In October 2002, engine drivers at Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) launched an overtime ban in protest against the company's current overtime practices and against restructuring measures planned by management, including a workforce reduction and the sell-off of a number of ÖBB's divisions. After several days of considerable disruption on the railways, the company made a number of concessions and the engine drivers resumed normal work.

On 11 October 2002, engine drivers at Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB) launched a work-to-rule, refusing to work overtime without previous notice. As a consequence, between 80 and 100 train services per day were cancelled in the eastern regions of Austria. The protest action was launched in response to ÖBB management’s announcement that the coming liberalisation of the EU railway market will require thoroughgoing restructuring and a reduction in personnel of 7,000 workers within five years. In the light of these plans, and given that ÖBB's 4,300 engine drivers alone work some 1 million hours of overtime per year, the Union of Railway Employees (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner, GdE) decided that this group should refuse any overtime work. Referring to several recent accidents resulting from the supposed fatigue of train drivers, the union demanded an increase in staffing instead of the planned reductions, on the grounds of passengers’ safety.

Rüdiger vorm Walde, ÖBB's chief executive, stressed the necessity of restructuring measures. Aside from a workforce reduction from 47,000 employees to about 40,000 by 2007, Mr vorm Walde, in line with a recent study from the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (Österreichisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, WIFO), proposed the sell-off of some of the company’s divisions, such as planning and engineering, cleaning services, ÖBB's own power stations, and its workshops. Otherwise, he emphasised, the company would not be ready to withstand the coming competitive pressures after the complete liberalisation of the European railway market in 2003 (AT9809101F).

GdE, however, rejected the restructuring programme. Moreover, it regards the sell-out of parts of ÖBB planned by management as the dismantling of an 'organically grown' public company. Wilhelm Haberzettl, the chair of GdE, called on the management to continue recruitment of junior staff and related vocational training and to employ all the company’s apprentices after they have finished their training, instead of cutting ÖBB’s workforce. This is seen as the only effective way of reducing the high degree of overtime work among ÖBB’s employees.

After GdE had announced that that protest actions would be extended from the engine drivers to other railway employee groups, management signalled its willingness to accept some of the union’s demands. On 16 October 2002, a settlement was reached, in that the management agreed to recruit most of the company’s apprentices and to extend vocational training for engine drivers from the current 180 people per year to between 250 and 300. Moreover, in order to prepare jointly the company’s restructuring process, management and the union will enter a social dialogue. The planned sell-off of divisions which do not belong to the core business of ÖBB has been postponed for an indefinite period. The problem of workforce reduction, however, still remains an resolved question. Nevertheless, on 17 October 2002, all engine drivers resumed normal work.

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