Protests spread across Austrian public services

A flurry of disputes broke out in April 1998 across the Austrian federal civil service and recently privatised former state agencies. They were triggered partly by pay and pensions issues, and partly by the effects of staff cuts. Most, but not all, are linked to 1997's austerity package. Solutions to all the disputes seem likely before the summer.

April 1998 saw the outbreak of a number of industrial disputes in the federal civil service and in recently privatised former state agencies, involving teachers, judges, post office staff and railway workers.

Teachers expect loss of income

Teachers in high schools are federal employees whereas teachers in the compulsory school grades (which last nine years) are provincial employees. The federally employed teachers are organised in two sections within the Public Service Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD) - the general education secondary school teachers and the vocational education secondary school teachers. Both groups, but especially the latter, are unhappy with legal changes the Government has been seeking that would affect their income by way of the hours actually paid. The Government aims to save ATS 600 million from an education budget of which 92% consists of salaries. The means were agreed between the GÖD and the Government last year: there would no longer be a lump-sum payable for overtime hours (attracting a premium of 73%) but payment only for hours actually worked (AT9709131N).

In early April 1998, teachers began a series of protests against the agreement, spearheaded by the trade union itself, claiming that the Government was trying to defraud them of hours worked outside the classroom. They would henceforth refuse to go on excursions with students or go on skiing weeks and similar activities. They reminded the public of numerous "unpaid" activities such as contacts with partner schools, running school libraries, student access computer networks, debating competitions and so on. Teacher groups enlisted parents and students to write protest letters to the Government but many parents and students themselves protested against these attempts to involve them. On 29 April 1998, a day of action was held. Vocational education teachers demonstrated outside the Ministry of Education (Bundesministerium für Unterricht und kulturelle Angelegenheiten, BMUkA) and general education teachers held staff meetings during the first two morning school hours. It was agreed to renegotiate the deal in a working group.

Judges and state prosecutors demand higher salaries

On the morning of 5 May 1998, instead of conducting trials, more than 700 judges and state prosecutors in Vienna held staff meetings. There are close to 2,000 of these employees across the whole of Austria. The protests had started in late January 1998 in Vienna and continued in three other cities with major courts until the beginning of April. The demands include higher life-time incomes, especially higher starting salaries of perhaps 25% more than the current ATS 280,000 per year after tax and deductions, and a simpler pay structure. Another important issue is the retention of the current service regulations which the Government has proposed to subsume under a general set of federal service regulations. Further at issue is a demand to create more than 60 new judges. Lesser complaints concern a shortage of secretarial personnel and computers in some courts in Vienna.

The Government is offering to increase starting salaries but refuses to say publicly by how much. It is also showing willingness to compromise on new positions and on the pay structure. It is, however, clearly aiming to cap the cost of the judicial service in order to foreclose any demands from other civil servants such as university teachers, internal revenue staff or the police. Negotiations were due to continue on 22 May. The judges and state prosecutors were threatening strikes as a last resort, and scheduled a demonstration in Vienna for 29 June.

Newspapers have stressed that the judges' action comes almost exactly one year after similar protests by internal revenue staff which culminated in warning strikes in June and demonstrations in July (AT9706117F). The issues were similar - staffing, equipment and pay levels - but were exacerbated by the threatened loss of a bonus. By 1 January 1998, a compromise had been agreed between the Government and the GÖD to recruit an extra 80 staff (instead of the 300 to 500 that the GÖD had demanded) and to retain the bonus to different degrees for different groups of the roughly 10,000 internal revenue employees.

Post office staff cuts

Scheduled for privatisation but still fully state owned, the post office has been trying to shed staff and reorganize to achieve its aim of quotation on the stock market in 2001. An early retirement scheme was agreed in 1997 to reduce the employment of postal employees by between 4,000 and 5,000 in 1998 towards a reduction of 6,000 by the year 2000, going a long way to achieve the total reduction of 9,500 - about 16% - that management is seeking overall (AT9711147N). Some 4,800 have already accepted the offer, among them close to 10% of the overland bus and lorry drivers and mechanics.

On 7 May 1998, transport division employees in a key Vienna depot held staff meetings between 02.00 and 05.00, a crucial period in mail distribution. It resulted in only minor delays in mail deliveries in Vienna but caused delays of up to six hours in outlying regions. The protest was directed against excessive overtime and weekend service resulting from staff shortages, not against the early retirement scheme as such. It was tied up with rumours about the closure of that particular depot, a reduction in bus services and a possible sale of the overland bus service. On 15 May, the Union of Post Office and Telecommunication Employees (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten) criticised "poor planning and uncoordinated activity" as the cause of the problems.

Railways - pensions at issue

In December 1997, the Union of Railway Employees (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner), the management of the Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB) and the Government concluded a hard-won agreement on pension reform (AT9712152N). Its main point was the gradual introduction of a base period over which incomes determining pension entitlement would be averaged. There was also a legal problem. Civil service pensions on the railways are regulated by means of the individual employment contract and not through any law or collective agreement, although there is no variation between individual contracts. In order to avoid individual resistance against the reform, a law was enacted referring to a company agreement that would specify the precise new pension regulations. This might have constituted interference with a private contract and thus have violated constitutional rights.

The communist group within the trade union, in late April 1998, sued against this alleged violation. Some time after 25 May, the Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof, VfGH) will decide on whether or not to enter into a review of the law. The Government has hinted at the possibility of making the law itself part of the Constitution, should the court rule against it. The communist trade unionists are also challenging the company agreement itself in the Labour Court (Arbeits- und Sozialgericht). If they are successful there, the Government's strategy is doomed no matter what the VfGH rules. The social democrat caucus in the trade union, commanding an overwhelming majority, has been warning that if the December 1997 agreement were overturned, this would affect not only the base period but also the entitlement to a pension at the age of 53 that it had managed to safeguard.

Federal Railways management has been saying that the outcome matters little to them. The goal of raising productivity by 50% between 1994 and 2002 would still be achieved. More than half of it has already been attained and the rest would be implemented according to the railways' "turnaround plan".

Commentary

Given the Government's repeatedly stated intention to keep cutting costs in the civil service, there are only two choices: either the same number of employees earns less (in real terms and on average); or the workforce level is reduced, perhaps by so much that real incomes can be increased to competitive levels. Where the aim is to make former government agencies fit for stock market quotation, there is really only the latter option. The goals are ambitious. A smooth ride would be too much to expect especially since there is enormous time pressure for solutions. In the second half of 1998 the Government will be busy presiding over the EU and in 1999 it will be up for re-election. Thus, controversial matters need to be on track before the middle of 1998. This may yet be achieved. A deal with the teachers should be possible; the problems at the post office appear to be minor, at least for the time being; and in the judicial service compromise agreements appear to be imminent. The legal problems on the railways may turn out to be thornier but they actually concern only the implementation of the December agreement, not its substance. (August Gächter, IHS)

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