Far-reaching union restructuring under discussion

In February 2001, the president of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), Fritz Verzetnitsch, presented a new proposal for organisational reform, which would involve a substantial change in the membership domains of ÖGB's affiliated unions and a reduction in their number from 13 to eight. The initiative has launched a new round of discussions on reform within ÖGB.

At present, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) has 13 member unions. This includes eight sector-based unions which organise the manual workers within their sectoral domain, these being:

  • metal, mining, power and the manufacture of textiles, clothing and leather;
  • construction and wood;
  • chemicals;
  • printing and paper;
  • commerce and transport;
  • agriculture and food processing;
  • hotels, restaurants and personal services; and
  • arts, media and liberal professions.

Four other member unions reflect the traditional structure of public employment:

  • federal and regional (Länder) governments;
  • local municipal authorities;
  • telecommunications and postal services; and
  • railways.

Finally, there is a single union for white-collar workers - the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) - which covers all branches of the private sector.

In February 2001, the ÖGB president, Fritz Verzetnitsch, presented a new concept for organisational reform of the unions. Under this proposal, the current 13-union structure should be replaced with eight wider-ranging unions, covering:

  • metal, mining, power, and the manufacture of textiles, clothing and leather;
  • construction, wood, chemicals, agriculture and food processing;
  • arts, media and communication (including printing and paper, telecommunications and postal services);
  • public administration (including governments and municipal authorities);
  • hotel, restaurants and personal services;
  • transport (including railways);
  • banking, insurance, commerce and associations; and
  • health and social services.

With two exceptions, this plan could be implemented by mergers among the existing ÖGB-affiliated unions. The two exceptions concern the blue-collar Commerce and Transport Union (Gewerkschaft Handel, Transport, Verkehr, GHTV), and the white-collar GPA ,which both would be broken up by transferring their members to various unions. As the concept aims to organise both the manual workers and the white-collar workers in adjoining branches within one and the same union, GPA would lose its coherence completely, with its members being distributed across almost all of the new unions: its members working in the manufacturing sector would be allotted to the union covering the corresponding segment of manufacturing; while its members in the service sector would move to the new unions for either banking, insurance, commerce and associations, or health and social services.

This new reform initiative has met with some scepticism among ÖGB's affiliates, and in particular the two most powerful unions - GPA and the blue-collar Metalworking and Textiles Union (Gewerkschaft Metall-Textil, GMT). In response to the initiative, it was decided to delegate further discussion of the issue to the ÖGB's working committee on organisational issues, on which the member unions are represented. The committee is expected to present the result of its debates in June 2001.

The issue of restructuring, and especially the organisation of blue- and white-collar workers in the same union (the principle of "industrial unionism") has permeated ÖGB debates since its formation. Over the past decade or so, however, this debate has intensified (AT9806192F). This is mainly due to economic changes such as firms increasingly operating in a number of sectors (thus cutting across traditional union demarcations), privatisation and the convergence of the legal status of blue- and white-collar employees (AT9906153N). In addition, declining membership has forced the unions to economise on resources (AT0009229F).

As a consequence, the 1995 ÖGB congress agreed to concentrate resources on the creation of three basic union groupings for manufacturing, services and the public sector. This decision has never been implemented. The implementation of the new proposal is also very unlikely for two main reasons. First, such far-reaching restructuring requires consensus among all actors involved. GPA, as ÖGB's largest affiliate, will oppose any proposal that implies its own break-up. Second, "bottom-up" restructuring has occurred in a way that conflicts with the "grand designs" outlined above. There is a tendency among the blue-collar unions to amalgamate in a way that matches their own specific interests. For instance, GMT plans to merge with the blue-collar Agriculture and Food Processing Union (Gewerkschaft Agrar-Nahrung-Genuß, GANG), a move which is at odds with the ÖGB president's proposal. Pressures for change in formal structures are also mitigated by the fact that several unions have embarked on "network-style" cooperation in such fields as collective bargaining.

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