Sunday working controversy resurfaces

In late 1998, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) is being forced to take a line on a referendum opposing Sunday working. Parts of the ÖGB, together with the Catholic church, support the referendum but the leadership is afraid of losing an instrument in the fight for employment and hence an important bargaining chip.

After a lull, the Sunday working issue (AT9712151F) resurfaced in October 1998 with a vengeance, largely owing to an attempt, begun in February, by the Upper Austrian provincial executive of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) to initiate a referendum against Sunday working. In April, the local bishop presented a petition containing 270,000 signatures against Sunday working to the government. The ÖGB's largest member trade union, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) passed a resolution on 12 November in favour of the referendum.

The ÖGB's federal board, however, decided at the end of October to take its time over the matter. It wants to define with utmost precision the exact aim of the referendum, since Sunday working is already closely regulated by law and collective agreements. The GPA and the provincial union organisations, adhering to an older line of reasoning, are strictly opposed to "sacrificing Sundays for profit". The newer line, espoused primarily by headquarters in Vienna, is to make job creation paramount and selectively to drop the ban on Sunday working (as well as the ban on women's night work). Working time flexibility, after all, has emerged as the ÖGB's major bargaining chip, and it clearly does not want anybody to erode it.

A lesser cause for the renewed debate was the recent highly publicised "illegal" Sunday opening of food retailers in a few places in Vorarlberg, the small westernmost province. They were irked by what they called "quasi-supermarkets" in petrol stations open around the clock. The Catholic church and the ÖGB organisation in the province were outraged but the Vorarlberg Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Vorarlberg) was not unequivocally supportive either. After consultations, the provincial government issued a directive on 9 November permitting community retailers to be open for two hours between 08.00 and 12.00 on Sundays. Only the owner of the shop, and not even family members or employees, is permitted to work. The directive is effective immediately and runs for one year. It will then be reviewed. In about 30 locations in the province seen as "tourist areas", retailers have been permitted to be open on Sundays for several years.

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