Further strikes as pensions talks fail

In May 2003, Austria's Federal President launched tripartite round-table talks in an attempt to resolve the major confrontation, including widespread industrial action, over the government’s plans to reform the public pensions system. However, the talks proved unsuccessful, and trade unions organised major strike action on 3 June, with further protests planned as the government seeks to push the reform through parliament during June.

Since the coalition government of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) resumed office in February 2003, Austria’s public debate has been dominated by the government’s plans for a fundamental reform of the public pensions system. This reform is designed to reduce considerably future expenditure on pension benefits, especially for (younger) employees in the private sector (AT0305201N).

In protest against these plans, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) organised a broadly-supported 'defence strike' on 6 May 2003 and a number of large demonstrations (with more than 200,000 participants) on 13 May (AT0305202F). As a consequence, Austria’s Federal President, Thomas Klestil, seriously worried about the tense political situation, invited the government, opposition political parties and the social partners to attend 'round-table' negotiations hosted by the President. Since none of the parties involved could decline such a proposition, a series of tripartite round-table talks were held from 15 May to 26 May 2003, which, however, failed to reach an agreement.

In the talks, ÖGB and the Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK) refused the government’s final offer to limit the cuts in pension benefits for the individual pensioner to a maximum of 10% in comparison with the current scheme. As a matter of principle, the employee representative organisations are not willing to accept cuts in public pensions worth more than one month’s benefit per year. They also reject the planned abolition of the early retirement scheme by 2009 and restrictions affecting the invalidity pension scheme, since these measures are argued to exacerbate unemployment problems. For its part, the government did not accept the social partners’ demand to combine negotiations over its reform proposals with talks about harmonising the various pensions systems for different occupational groups (ie private sector employees, public servants, farmers and self-employed people).

When the round-table talks finally appeared deadlocked on 26 May, the employee representative organisations broke off the negotiations. On 27 May, the ÖGB leadership passed a resolution providing for further strike action to be prepared for 3 June.

In response to the unions’ decision to organise further strike action, the government expressed its regret and lack of understanding. According to Martin Bartenstein, the ÖVP Minister of Economy and Labour Affairs, if the unions were to withdraw from negotiations and mobilise their members for industrial action, they would ignore substantial concessions offered by the government and thus be responsible for bringing the country to a standstill.

The Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreichs, WKÖ) employers' organisation takes a more differentiated view. On the one hand, WKÖ, as a key participant in Austria's social partnership, has always tried to find a close cooperation with ÖGB, and both are worried about the government’s disregard of the social partners’ demands over the pensions reform. On the other hand, since WKÖ’s member firms have to meet the expenses arising from any strike action, it has to keep a clear distance from the unions’ positions. Notably, WKÖ recently indicated its consent to some of the government’s pensions reform proposals, even though a number of small-scale self-employed people (who are members of WKÖ) will be affected considerably by the cuts in pension benefits.

Regardless of the government’s warnings and even some companies’ threat to sue the unions for loss of turnover, ÖGB and its affiliates organised nationwide strikes across almost all sectors on 3 June 2003. The strike actions focused notably on public transport (including the railways, the public post-bus service and the whole local public transport system in Vienna), customs, the postal service, universities and public schools, public kindergartens, local refuse collection in Vienna, Graz and Salzburg, and several larger companies in the private sector. These strikes were the most far-reaching protest actions Austria has seen since 1945, with more than 1 million employees participating. However, most experts expect that the government will withstand these protests and push a modified pensions reform through parliament in June 2003, as scheduled. Nevertheless, Fritz Verzetnitsch, the president of ÖGB, has announced further protest actions.

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