Lorry drivers threaten industrial action

In spring 2003, Austria’s road haulage companies are calling for lorry drivers' 'non-productive' working time, such as waiting time due to loading, no longer to be paid. The reason is that the companies' costs will increase when a new road pricing system for lorries is introduced on Austria’s motorways in 2004. The blue-collar transport workers' trade union, HTV, rejects any such dilution of the current definition of working hours, and two sides have thus failed so far to conclude a collective agreement for 2003. In order to support its position, the union has threatened to organise nationwide road blockades.

There are no precise data on the number of companies in the Austrian road haulage sector, with figures varying from about 5,000 to about 13,000 businesses. The same holds true for the number of employees of these companies, with estimates varying from about 55,000 to 80,000. However, these vague figures suggest that relatively small firms prevail numerically in the sector.

The structure of the sector’s collective bargaining system is shaped by the demarcation between the domains of the various parties on both sides. Collective agreements are concluded separately for white-collar and blue-collar workers. The relevant trade union organisations are the white-collar Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) and the blue-collar Commerce, Transport and Traffic Workers' Union (Gewerkschaft Handel, Transport, Verkehr, HTV). Separate agreements are also concluded for the subsectors of road transport of goods and of haulage contractors, as the former falls within the domain of the Federal Organisation of Road Transport of Goods (Fachverband für das Güterbeförderungsgewerbe, FGG) and the latter within the domain of the Federal Organisation of Haulage Contractors (Fachverband der Spediteure, FSp). Both are sub-units of Austria’s Chamber of Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), and membership of both is thus obligatory for all businesses belonging to their domain. Collective bargaining coverage is therefore 100%. Since no other parties are entitled to conduct collective bargaining, and the bargaining units are defined in a mutually exclusive way, each party has a de facto monopoly in bargaining with regard to its domain.

Redefinition of working time scheme

On 1 January 2004, a road pricing system will be introduced for lorries which use Austria’s motorways. This general charging scheme for motorways will apply to all lorries, with a graduation in fees depending on both the mileage and the number of the trailers’ axes. The average motorway fees are planned to amount to EUR 0.22 per lorry per kilometre. Haulage and transportation companies, however, consider these fees too high. They are calling for a significant reduction in road prices and the abolition of the existing additional motorway fees on special routes. FGG argues that the new road pricing scheme will reduce haulage businesses’ average turnover by 30% and the level of employment by 10%.

Facing this future financial burden to come, road freight companies want to redefine lorry drivers’ 'payable' working hours. Accordingly, they are no longer willing to pay for waiting time and only for actual driving time. As FGG’s executive secretary, Rudolf Bauer, underlines, employers want a clear demarcation of working hours, defined as productive time (which has to be paid), and 'non-productive' periods, such as recreation time during loading periods, which FGG does not regard as payable working time. However, responding to some of the fears expressed by the HTV trade union, FCG does not dispute that waiting time due to congestion and border controls should continue to be regarded as payable working time.

Union threatens traffic standstill

HTV totally rejects the employers’ efforts to differentiate between payable and non-payable working time. Georg Eberl, the secretary of HTV, describes such suggestions as attempts to undermine the clear definition of working hours. It is claimed that any dilution of the current working hours scheme would impede the legally-required observation of obligatory drivers’ recreation periods by the Health Insurance Funds (Krankenkassen). Furthermore, decreases in the lorry drivers’ income and – as a consequence – in their contributions to the Health Insurance Funds would not be accepted by the union. If the employers’ organisations do not show any willingness to maintain the existing working hours scheme and to conclude a collective agreement to this effect for 2003 before the end of April 2003, HTV will be ready to organise a nationwide road blockade, Mr Eberl stated at a press conference held on 1 April 2003.

The employees’ irritation and distrust of the road haulage companies has a variety of other sources. Illegal practices in the sector are considered as more or less commonplace. HTV suspects 80% of all Austrian road haulage firms of violating the law, in particular in respect of illegal employment of foreign nationals and the use of unlawful mileage-related pay for lorry drivers (AT0202203F). Against this background, the union continues to call upon the employers to observe strictly the provisions of the relevant collective agreements.

Commentary

The current attempts of the road haulage and transportation companies to reduce labour costs by questioning the definition of employees’ working hours reflect an important challenge to industrial relations in the transport sector shortly before the enlargement of the European Union to central and eastern Europe. EU enlargement will undoubtedly exacerbate the fierce price competition in the single market. These prospects have caused a problematic and obviously large-scale drift into illegality, as the unions claim. Against this background, the relevant employers’ organisations have been seeking to improve the Austrian road transport sector’s competitiveness by promoting a (collectively agreed) redefinition of payable working hours.

However, since such a working hours scheme would mean significant cuts in the employees’ wages and employment conditions without obtaining additional time off (because 'non-productive' periods will still essentially be working time when employees are not free to do as they wish), HTV strictly refuses such demands. Although HTV is one of the weakest trade unions in Austria with a total membership of about 35,000 employees and a density lower than 20% (AT0110205N), threats to mobilise its lorry driver members usually prove effective means of industrial action. However, the outcome of this dispute is not foreseeable at present. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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