Plans for major union merger in danger of failure
The success of a planned merger of five trade unions affiliated to the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) - including the two largest affiliates - has been put into question by inter-union conflicts, which culminated in May 2004 in the withdrawal from the process of the Union of Chemical Workers (GdC).
In October 2001, representatives of Austria’s largest blue- and white-collar unions decided to merge their organisations. Hans Sallmutter, the chair of the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), and Rudolf Nürnberger, the chair of the blue-collar Metalworking and Textiles Union (Gewerkschaft Metall-Textil, GMT), announced that a single large union with about half a million members would be established in the coming years (AT0110205N). Subsequently, three other unions decided to join the planned merger - the Union of Chemical Workers (Gewerkschaft der Chemiearbeiter, GdC), the Printing and Paper Union (Gewerkschaft Druck und Papier, GDP), and the Union of Agricultural, Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers (Gewerkschaft Agrar-Nahrung-Genuss, ANG). All five unions are affiliated to the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB).
The large-scale restructuring planned by the unions concerned aimed to strengthen their position towards employers and the public authorities since, it was claimed, the unions’ political strategies and bargaining policies across different branches and sectors would be more centralised and better coordinated. The plan for the merger was drawn up in a period when - against a background of increasing pressure placed on unions by both the government and the employers’ organisations during the early 2000s - the unions involved had reportedly become increasingly sceptical about ÖGB and its president, Fritz Verzetnitsch. This was because the unions did not see ÖGB as being willing decisively to oppose the government’s austerity policy.
However, during the major confrontations - including widespread strike action - of spring 2003 between the unions and the government over the latter’s plan substantially to reform the public pensions system (AT0306201N), ÖGB proved itself in the view of many to be well prepared and capable of acting. Unlike ÖGB, some of its member unions, including GPA, experienced some difficulties in organising strikes. This appeared to weaken the position of ÖGB’s affiliates compared with the 'peak' organisation and its representatives. Moreover, this development has brought into question the aim and object of the planned union merger, since ÖGB has arguably proved more reliable in organising industrial disputes and strike action than its large affiliates.
Furthermore, long-standing smouldering conflicts between the unions planning to merge have flared up during recent months, in particular in terms of future organisation, finances and - most importantly - distribution of powers and posts. It thus appears that the merger itself may be in question. At the end of May 2004, GdC announced its withdrawal from the merger project, claiming that its positions had not been taken into account by the other unions. This, in turn, exacerbated a long-standing conflict between GPA (which runs several businesses not directly related to 'core' union tasks) and GMT over what should be seen as the core union activities. Mr Verzetnitsch, the ÖGB president, who has always been critical about the merger plan, has remained reserved and called upon the union representatives concerned to act more responsibly.
There is a widespread view in the mass media that the recent internal conflicts within the trade union movement have weakened its overall position vis-à-vis the government and the employers. It remains to be seen whether the merger will completely dropped or occur in a smaller-scale form than originally planned.