Industrial disputes hit post-war peak in 2003

Statistics published in October 2004 indicate that in 2003 strike activity in Austria reached its highest level since the Second World War. This resulted from large-scale trade union mobilisation, mainly in opposition to government reform plans related to public pensions and the structure of the state-owned Austrian Railways. Experts disagree as to whether the 2003 peak in industrial action was a one-off or marks a turning point in Austrian industrial relations.

The most recent strike statistics from the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) - published exclusively by the Austrian Press Agency (APA) at the end of October 2004 - indicate that industrial dispute action among Austrian employees reached its highest level since the Second World War in 2003. According to the figures, 2003 saw the highest post-war number of working hours lost due to industrial action (totalling more than 10.4 million hours). In addition, more employees (some 780,000) were involved in industrial action than in any year since 1950 (when ÖGB's statistics began). On the basis of an eight-hour working day (ie the statutorily defined 'normal' working hours in Austria), this means more than 1.3 million working days lost due to industrial action in 2003. In terms of average strike duration per participant and per employee, the figures were 13.5 and 3.3 working hours lost, respectively.

The main reasons for this extraordinarily high incidence of strike activity in Austrian terms were the government’s plans to introduce a fundamental pensions reform (AT0306201N) and to carry out large-scale restructuring of the state-owned Austrian Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB). Moreover, pilots at the Austrian Airlines (AUA) national air carrier took limited strike action in the course of a major labour dispute over the introduction of a less favourable payment scheme planned by the management (AT0301201N).

The high incidence of strikes and protest actions organised by ÖGB and its member unions in 2003 contrasts with the overall period since 1950. With the exceptions of 1962 and 1965, when there were significant industrial disputes, the number and extent of recorded strikes has until now been almost negligible. Notably, during the decade 1993-2002, there were five years when no strikes were recorded at all - see the table below. The total average duration of strikes per employee, per year did not exceed three minutes over the decade.

Industrial disputes in Austria, 1992-2003
Year Workers involved Workers involved per 1,000 employees Working hours lost Strike duration per employee
1993 6,869 2.2 104,502 2 min 2 sec
1994 0 0 0 0
1995 60 0 894 0 min 2 sec
1996 0 0 0 0
1997 25,800 8.4 153,000 3 min 0 sec
1998 0 0 0 0
1999 0 0 0 0
2000 19,439 6.2 23,579 0 min 27 sec
2001 0 0 0 0
2002 6,305 2.0 74,445 1 min 25 sec
2003 779,182 245.8 10,443,727 3 hrs 16 min 48 sec

Source: Arbeiterkammer, APA, own calculations.

2003 action against government plans

As mentioned above, industrial relations during 2003 were overshadowed by a series of strikes and protest actions, the most important of them directed against the government’s plans to introduce a far-reaching state pensions reform (AT0401203F). The main aim of the reform was to reduce future expenditure on pension benefits, in particular affecting younger employees in the private sector and those with interrupted careers. Since the government had not consulted either the opposition parties or the social partners over these pension reforms, and the initial draft implied major losses for future pensioners of up to 40% compared with the existing system, the government was confronted with considerable protest actions during May and June 2003: ÖGB and its member unions organised a series of large demonstrations, some 10,000 works meetings at company-level, 'token' and 'defence strikes', and a nationwide strike across almost all sectors on 3 June with several hundred thousand employees participating. The government eventually introduced the pensions reform with some slight modifications, including a limitation of losses for pensioners to a maximum of 10% compared with the existing system, as well as a postponement of the planned harmonisation of the different pension systems for different occupational groups.

Another significant labour dispute affected ÖBB, when in November 2003 workers repeatedly went on strike, including for a continuous period of 66 hours, in protest against the government’s plans for restructuring and splitting up the state-owned company. Although organised labour could not stop these plans, with the reform being enacted by parliament in December 2003, it achieved the delegation of negotiations over changes to the railway employees’ service regulations to the social partners. Originally, the government aimed unilaterally to enact new service regulations without substantial social partner consultation (AT0312103F).

Commentary

In general, there has been a widespread consensus among the Austrian social partners and the political parties in the post-war era that strikes and other forms of industrial action should be prevented (AT0007225F). However, the ongoing practice of the coalition government of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) to bypass Austria’s proven system of social partner involvement, in particular with regard to the unions, has disrupted the consensual atmosphere and increased the unions’ propensity to organise industrial action. This is, for instance, reflected by the fact that the largest affiliate of ÖGB, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), adopted a new political strategy in 2002. This involves a 'tougher' union approach vis-à-vis both the government and the employers including, if necessary, large-scale mobilisation in response to the government’s ongoing 'austerity' policy and its perceived strategy of weakening the unions (AT0212202F).

The fact that the unions’ increased readiness to organise strikes and public protests was reflected in the statistics no earlier than in 2003 may be attributed to two circumstances: First, although the government has, in general, shown determination to move away from the traditional system of social partnership and to replace it with an approach that prefers unilaterally imposed policies over concerted action, the coalition partners have also spontaneously resorted to the proven structures of the social partners and their conflict resolution skills when they have been unable to reach an agreement among themselves on certain issues. This arguably 'pacified' the unions for a while. Second, despite their more militant rhetoric since the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government came to office, compared with the 1990s, the unions have still remained closely tied to the traditional system of 'corporatist' negotiation and policy-making. Although the government in 2003 accused the unions of taking militant action negligently, industrial action was not organised earlier by the unions than at the moment when the government had definitely refused any joint social partner initiative - notably in such an important public policy area as state pensions.

With regard to the 2003 strike statistics, experts disagree on whether the peak in industrial action might be a single 'runaway' event due to particular circumstances, or marks a turning point in Austria’s industrial relations in that a long-term 'era of social partnership' is currently being replaced with an 'era of higher-scale industrial disputes', corresponding to the level of industrial action which is usual in many other European countries. Anyway, it is widely undisputed that the system of social partnership with regard to public policy matters has been greatly disrupted, while the climate of confrontation has not substantially spilled over to collective bargaining so far. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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