New service regulations agreed for railway employees

In April 2004, the management of the state-owned Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and the GdE trade union agreed new service regulations for the employment of railworkers, which will bring about significant cost savings. The government has accepted the agreement, since its demand to abolish a series of expensive company-specific regulations has been met.

On 30 April 2004, the management of the Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB) and representatives of the Union of Railway Employees (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner, GdE) agreed new 'service regulations' applying to about 47,000 railway employees. This agreement was concluded under a government threat unilaterally to alter the existing public service employment regulations by law, if the parties failed to reach a settlement by the end of April.

The background is that in autumn 2003 the government of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) introduced a far-reaching restructuring of the state-owned ÖBB in order to improve the company’s competitiveness. This restructuring process was accompanied by major strikes (AT0312103F). In the course of the ÖBB reform, the government also aimed to replace the employees’ service regulations with private law employment relationships, with the goal of saving EUR 100 million per year. However, in the face of further strike action which had been threatened by the unions, the government delegated negotiations on the future ÖBB service regulations to ÖBB management and GdE, instead of unilaterally enacting its own draft Service Regulations Act. The bargaining parties were obliged to find a joint solution by the end of April 2004.

After about 40 rounds of intense negotiations, an agreement was eventually signed by the ÖBB’s chief executive, Rüdiger vorm Walde, and the chair of GdE, Wilhelm Haberzettl. It meets the government’s requirements, by containing provisions as follows:

  • automatic wage increments every two years have been replaced with a less favourable scheme providing for increments falling due only every three years. Thus, the maximum number of wage increments during a railworker’s entire career will drop from 14 to nine;
  • the maximum duration of continued payment of remuneration (Entgeltfortzahlung) in the event of sickness has been reduced from one year to four months;
  • the railworkers’ de facto protection against dismissal has been substantially relaxed, in that the principle of unanimity on the company’s disciplinary board (which is composed of representatives of both management and GdE), which is competent in personnel matters such as dismissal, has been abolished. The union’s right of veto is still in effect only if the employment relationships of certain workers engaged in arduous work are concerned;
  • most of the company-specific benefits (such as entitlement to additional leave in compensation for work on public holidays etc) have been fully abolished; and
  • most importantly, the special ÖBB regulation providing for generous additional leave for night workers has been replaced by a regulation which is in line with the Heavy Night Work Act (Nachtschwerarbeitsgesetz) applying to private sector employees. Accordingly, about some 20,000 shiftworkers at ÖBB working between 22.00 and 05.00 will be guaranteed additional time off to compensate for arduous night work (which is, however, far less favourable than the former regulation). This measure alone is planned to save up to EUR 57 million per year.

All these changes in the railworkers’ service employment regulations amount to a harmonisation with the overall private sector employment regulations, as demanded by the government. Therefore, the government has accepted this deal, which will be formally laid down in a works agreement. The possible rejection of this agreement by the government, which would have entailed statutory interference with the service regulations, would probably have resulted in further strike action (in an internal poll held by GdE in April 2004, 94.4% of the employees voted in favour of strikes if this should occur).

Although the union had to make substantial concessions, the new settlement brings about one important advantage for the railworkers: in line with EU requirements, the ÖBB employees will now be covered by both the Working Time Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz, AZG) and the Act on Rest Periods (Arbeitsruhegesetz, ARG) applying to private sector employees. This will result in notably longer rest periods and shorter regular working hours for the employees in comparison with the former railway working time regulations. Since this may damage the company’s business operations, the bargaining parties have agreed to conclude a collective agreement by December 2004 in order to adjust the new, more restrictive working hours regulations to the company’s requirements.

However, one fundamental problem has not been resolved: the union faction linked to the opposition Greens (Die Grünen, GRÜNE) political party has announced that it will support employees who refuse to accept any changes to existing service regulations in instituting legal proceedings against the replacement of the 'old' regulations. Such proceedings may be successful, since from a legal point of view any change of existing service regulations by voluntary agreements may require explicit recognition by the employees. In this case, however, the government appears to be willing unilaterally to enact the service regulations reform by statute, an approach which is strictly opposed by organised labour for reasons of principle related to social partner autonomy in bargaining.

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