Post-bus employees strike against sell-off

On 29 May 2002, the 3,000 employees of Austria's state-owned post-bus company, Postbus AG, held a one-day nationwide strike, closing down a large proportion of the country's regional bus services. The action was directed against the current coalition government's decision to sell Austria's largest bus company to Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and – as a consequence – partially to privatise it.

For some time, the current coalition government of the conservative People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) has been considering selling off the national post-bus company (Postbus AG), Austria's largest bus operator, which runs a large proportion of regional bus services.

Postbus AG, which is fully owned by the state public holding company (Österreichische Industrieholding AG, ÖIAG), is greatly affected by structural problems, especially in terms of excess capacity. When the company's management presented the most recent financial figures at the end of April 2002, showing an operating loss of EUR 11.7 million for 2001, the government felt compelled to react. On 14 May, the government came to a decision to sell Postbus AG to the Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB), which – besides the railways – runs its own slightly smaller bus fleet of about 840 vehicles. Furthermore, ÖBB will be obliged to dispose of one-third of Postbus AG to private bus companies as soon as possible in order to ensure at least a minimum level of competition.

The split and partial privatisation of the company planned by the government has provoked considerable unrest among post-bus employees. At a meeting held in mid-May, both the majority of employees and the works council agreed to hold a one-day token strike, as the government had not met the employees' demands to withdraw the decision to divide and partially privatise Postbus AG.

Two main arguments have been put forward by the employees and the Postal and Telegraph Workers' Union (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten, GPF). First, the split and partial sale of the company to private business is likely to cause a considerable number of job losses. The works council claims that about 1,000 jobs out of 3,000 will be endangered by privatisation. Second, private employers will probably acquire Postbus AG's most profitable bus lines, while ignoring regional infrastructure needs in terms of short-distance routes. Interestingly, organised labour has not raised any objections to the sale of Postbus AG to ÖBB as such, since most representatives agree on the need for a restructuring programme within a new (semi-)public enterprise.

As the coalition government did not show any willingness to reconsider its position, the 3,000 post-bus employees, supported by both the works council and GPF, held a nationwide 24-hour token strike on 29 May, keeping all 1,600 buses in their garages. Thus, about half a million passengers of the 700 post-bus lines, especially school pupils and apprentices, had problems in reaching their destinations.

In a first reaction, representatives of the government condemned this kind of labour dispute. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel claimed that the unions were obviously inclined to provoke a pointless conflict, to the main disadvantage of the Austrian school-children. The minister for infrastructural affairs, Mathias Reichhold, also expressed his lack of understanding of the strike, as the existing employment contracts of the Postbus AG employees would not be affected by the sell-off. By contrast, representatives of the opposition Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and Green Party (Die Grünen) considered the dispute a justified measure taken by organised labour, since any further cuts in bus services would be unacceptable, especially in rural districts.

Meanwhile, the head of GPF, Gerhard Fritz, announced another strike if the government shows no willingness to meet the union's demands. According to Mr Fritz, this strike action would take place before the end of June and last for at least three days. Such readiness to strike is quite unusual in the history of Austrian industrial relations and may indicate a new era of intensified labour disputes.

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