Largest union restructures and adopts new political strategy

At its general assembly held in November 2002, Austria's largest trade union, the Union of Salaried Employees (GPA), finalised an internal restructuring process and made preparations for a planned merger with four other unions in 2005. The assembly also approved a new political strategy and a comprehensive gender mainstreaming plan.

In June 2000, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) - the largest affiliate of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), with almost 285,000 members among private sector white-collar workers - launched a thoroughgoing organisational reform (AT0008277F). This internal restructuring process was prompted by declining unionisation rates and new labour market developments, such as increasing flexibilisation and deregulation of employment relations. In the course of this restructuring process, GPA's former sectoral sections have been replaced by 'economic branches' and its former regional (Länder) organisations by smaller sub-units. Furthermore, the representation of new employee groups – such as those involved in various forms of 'atypical' work or 'involuntary' self-employment – has been addressed by corresponding 'interest groupings' and 'issue platforms' within GPA.

On 12-15 November 2002, the GPA general assembly (Bundesforum) - the union's highest governing body under its new structure - met for the first time, in Vienna, and formally finalised the restructuring process. At the same time, the general assembly approved a planned merger between GPA and four other ÖGB affiliates in 2005 (AT0110205N). This move aims to strengthen the unions’ position towards the employers’ side by further centralising and coordinating the unions’ political strategies and bargaining policies across different branches and sectors. This merger scheduled for 2005 would create a union with almost 600,000 members and negotiating more than 350 collective agreements.

New political strategy

A new strategy paper adopted at the GPA general assembly was formulated in response to what are seen as significant recent political developments (AT0205202F) - ie the 'neo-liberal' policy line of the outgoing coalition government of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), which is perceived to have weakened the system of social partnership in general and organised labour in particular (AT0108225N).

The strategy paper argues for a 'tougher' trade union approach, since further cooperation with the employers, as has been ÖGB’s traditional policy, without a realistic chance of concessions on the employers’ side is regarded as a self-defeating strategy in the long run. As Hans Sallmutter, the chair of GPA, emphasised, the union will be ready to fully mobilise its potential if the forthcoming new government (negotiations over a new coalition government were underway following a general election on 24 November) ignores vital labour interests. Mr Sallmutter urgently called for a revision of the outgoing's government’s policy line on social, financial, and labour matters. More specifically, GPA calls for the immediate repeal of the fees for ambulance treatment and university fees introduced by the ÖVP-FPÖ government. Furthermore, the general assembly identified a range of key issues to be targeted by the coming government, calling for the following:

  • in order to maintain the public health insurance system, a reform of the tax system based on the introduction of a value added tax and taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and traffic;
  • a general working time reduction to 35 hours per week as a first step and to about 30 hours in the long run, with full wage compensation;
  • consideration of environmental aspects in fiscal policy. The tax burden on work should be relieved and energy and non-sustainable resources should be taxed instead. To support lower incomes, a system of negative taxation should be introduced; and
  • the introduction of a statutory minimum of social benefits. Moreover, all 'atypical' employees should be included in public unemployment insurance.

Gender mainstreaming

Another key development at the GPA assembly was the unanimous approval of a gender mainstreaming plan, whereby the union aims to intensify its gender-related policies by examining all its processes, decisions and measures with regard to their gender-specific effects. The aim is to arrive at complete equality for women and men in all respects. Traditionally, GPA has attributed high significance to gender issues. The share of female representatives in GPA's bodies is at least as high as the share of women in total membership (ie 43%). The women’s organisation within GPA has exerted strong influence on the union’s strategic orientation. This is evidenced by the numerous resolutions initially launched by the GPA women’s organisation which were submitted to and adopted by the 2002 general assembly. The most important 'women’s demands' adopted by the assembly are that:

  • the gender-specific segregation of the labour market should be overcome through the abolition of the legal differentiation between full-time and part-time work;
  • all companies employing more than 100 people or with more than 40% of women in the workforce should be forced to accept a works agreement which ensures real equality between women and men. Companies refusing equality programmes should be excluded from public contracts;
  • all collective agreements are to be examined with respect to clauses discriminating against women in terms of payment and qualification. As regards the collective agreements concluded by GPA, this should be done by the next general assembly in 2006;
  • a legal claim should be made for part-time leave for men and women, including the right to return to a full-time job; and
  • minimum pay rates should be set at EUR 1,100 monthly and atypical workers should be fully included in the social insurance system.

Commentary

The rapidly changing employment conditions in the private services sector – such as the increase in flexible working time schemes and of atypical forms of employment – have affected GPA even more than the other unions affiliated to ÖGB. Hence, GPA stands out in terms of its reform activities. There are three main dimensions of reform. First, the GPA has undergone an internal restructuring process. In this respect, the creation of interest groupings for atypical employees, migrants, information technology workers, social services workers, and other 'non-standard' working groups within the union’s scope is regarded as an important means of organising employee groups that are marginalised by the ongoing deregulation process. Second, external restructuring has resulted in the decision to merge with other unions. This is to augment the union’s power in relation to the employers and authorities. Third, GPA initiated a debate on long-term union goals, leading to the new political strategy as approved by the general assembly. However, a radical change in GPA’s policies is rather unlikely, despite its more militant rhetoric, since GPA remains closely tied to Austria’s corporatist system. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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