Non-ÖGB union to be created?
Efforts to create a trade union outside the ÖGB confederation were stepped up in April 1997, although the prospects remain uncertain.
On 30 April 1997 the Ring of Free Labour (Ring Freiheitlicher Arbeitnehmer, RFA), a group affiliated with the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), held its federal congress. One of the points of debate was whether to develop into a trade union outside the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichische Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB). Since 1945 there have been no trade unions outside the ÖGB. The debate was triggered by the RFA's failure to achieve caucus status in the ÖGB. The minimum requirement of at least four affiliated works council members in each of at least three trade unions has not been met.
In order for trade unions to be awarded the right to conclude collective agreements the Labour Constitution Act (Arbeitsverfassungsgesetz, ArbVG) stipulates a number of conditions:
- a broad professional and geographical base;
- economic significance due to the number of members and the scope of activity; and
- independence from employer organisations (and by implication from political parties).
Similar hurdles must be cleared to gain the right to call a strike.
For a trade union to sustain itself from membership fees, 100,000 members are thought to be necessary. This also thought to be the size which the Federal Agreement Office (Bundeseinigungsamt) and, in the second instance, the courts will require in order to grant a request to be awarded the right to conclude collective agreements. In the 1994 elections for the Chamber of Labour (AK, Arbeiterkammer), where membership is compulsory, Free Labour (Freiheitliche Arbeitnehmer, FA) got 112,961 votes (14.4%), resulting in 116 of the 836 council seats in the nine provincial Chambers of Labour. This was a remarkable increase over the 2.5% they received in 1984 and the 7.7% in 1989. In Chamber of Labour elections the voter turnout declined rapidly from 64% in 1984 to 48% in 1989 and to only 31% in 1994. This was partly in protest against the high incomes of top chamber officials, and it clearly favoured smaller groups. It cannot be taken for granted by the FA that protest votes will actually be turned into membership. One of the problems in gaining members will no doubt be that a trade union only has access to workplaces after it has been awarded the right to conclude collective agreements. Meanwhile the only access is through works council members affiliated to the FA. It is not known how many there are, but the percentage is thought to be tiny.
Currently it is only the Vienna police force where the RFA, under a different name, has made any inroads in what is the equivalent of works council elections. The construction industry, retailing, banking and the army are considered areas where further gains might be made. However, commentators at this time consider it unlikely that the RFA's presence anywhere could become important enough to warrant the award of the right to conclude collective agreements.
The ÖGB has refrained from almost any reaction to the RFA's plans. Employers' associations have not commented publicly on the developments.