Restructuring provokes unrest among public sector workers

During 2002, public sector restructuring measures taken or planned by Austria's coalition government of the conservative ÖVP and populist FPÖ have provoked growing unrest among public employees, especially in the schools, universities and police. In response, the Union of Public Employees (GÖD) has announced its willingness to organise industrial action.

In this context, industrial action has started to emerge in the public sector in early summer 2002. The employees of the state-owned post-bus company, Postbus AG, held a one-day national strike in May in protest at the split and partial privatisation of the company (AT0206202N), and planned further action at the end of June. Furthermore, some other parts of the public service may also face labour disputes. The central board (Zentralvorstand) of the Union of Public Employees (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD) has empowered its leadership to call industrial action, if necessary.

Restructuring of public services

The government's public sector restructuring measures seek both to reorganise responsibilities and economise on resources, thus affecting public employees in two different respects. The restructuring measures, in combination with fairly moderate pay increases, have in recent years caused considerable unrest among public sector workers - especially those working in schools, universities and the police force - placing GÖD under pressure to act.

Schools

The government's spending cutbacks have affected public schools, with the consequences including reductions in the number of lessons at each school, fewer teaching jobs, an increase in the maximum number of pupils per class, and cuts in bonuses for teachers. The bonuses which have been cut are those for special training, special care of pupils and school excursions and, as a consequence, many teachers have ceased to offer such services. Furthermore, the first signs of informal protests and resistance have recently been reported. For instance, a notable number of teachers in the Vorarlberg province (Land) held an unofficial one-day strike on 2 May 2002, protesting against what they saw as the increasingly precarious situation in Austria's schools.

Universities

For more than a decade, Austrian universities have seen a series of reforms, regarded by some as being rather incoherent. The government has recently proposed renewed restructuring, with the stated aim of increasing the universities' autonomy and efficiency. While all groups involved subscribe to these goals, several elements of the government's draft have met with sharp criticism. This is especially true of a proposed reform of decision-making procedures within universities, which will limit the participation rights of senior lecturers. The latter fear that the reform will make universities more hierarchical and exclude the majority of academic staff and students from participation in decision-making. Despite several rounds of negotiations with the minister responsible, university staff, supported by students' representatives, held a token strike on 24 April 2002, which was officially organised by GÖD. Meanwhile, other protest actions - including a further strike - have been announced.

Police

Austria's police force is traditionally divided into a number of organisational units. As this system implies dual structures in terms of administration and functions, Ernst Strasser, the Minister of the Interior, is seeking to streamline these structures by merging local police stations and unifying separate offices. In the long run, it is planned that the existing parallel structures of the rural police (Gendarmerie), which is organised at the level of the provinces (Länder), and the federal police, will be merged and centralised in order to strengthen units. These measures will cut jobs and change the internal structure of power and competences. Mr Strasser has also displaced some high-level police officers who publicly called into question the effectiveness of his restructuring plans. These various measures face resistance from trade union representatives, who are determined to organise public protests.

GÖD under pressure

On 27 May 2002, representatives within GÖD of school teachers, university staff and the police empowered the union's leadership to take appropriate measures, strike action included, if the government's public sector restructuring measures are not stopped at once. This was remarkable, in that the union faction affiliated to the conservative ÖVP party holds the majority in GÖD, in stark contrast to the other member unions of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), where the social democratic faction dominates. The fact that some teachers in Vorarlberg, who no longer felt that they were represented by GÖD, founded an organisation of their own, the Independent Education Union (Unabhängige Bildungsgewerkschaft, UBG) in 2001, is considered a warning for GÖD, all the more so since UBG held a strike on 2 May 2002, without support from GÖD.

Therefore, Fritz Neugebauer, the chair of GÖD and also a member of the ÖVP, is trying hard to contain and channel the various public sector protest actions by coordinating them under the umbrella of GÖD, in order not to lose control over the rank and file. In this context, GÖD has officially authorised him to call strike action, if necessary.

Commentary

The need to reform the public sector is widely accepted in Austria. However, since the government's restructuring programme is primarily guided by austerity goals, working conditions are getting worse in several sectors. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that further labour disputes can be avoided, despite the close links of GÖD with the ÖVP. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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