Postbus employees protest against privatisation plans

In late June 2004, most of the workforce of Postbus AG, a bus operator completely owned by Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), stopped work for some hours in order to attend works meetings. The action was directed against government plans to oblige the state-owned ÖBB to dispose of part of its bus services, which will mainly hit Postbus employees.

On 30 June 2004, most of the 2,700 or so employees of Postbus AG, Austria’s largest bus operator, which runs a large proportion of regional bus services, held a series of half-day works meetings. As a consequence, almost all the company’s vehicles were kept in their garages during the morning, causing inconvenience for more than half a million passengers (in particular school pupils) in reaching their destinations. The meetings were organised by the company’s works council in order to inform the employees about, and protest against, government plans to sell a third of Postbus AG to private bus companies.

The background to this action is a long-standing conflict over the company’s future between the government and Postbus management on the one hand and the Postal and Telegraph Workers’ Union (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten, GPF), representing the employees concerned, alongside the company’s works council, on the other (AT0206202N). In September 2003, the government sold the whole of Postbus AG, which had previously been fully owned by the state public holding company (Österreichische Industrieholding AG, ÖIAG), to the state-owned Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB), which runs its own (smaller) bus service. The coalition government of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) argued that only a merger of Postbus AG with ÖBB’s bus fleet (which is planned to be completed in autumn 2004) could secure the former's future, since it has experienced considerable losses over recent years due to excess capacity.

Furthermore, the government claims that EU competition law means that ÖBB is obliged to dispose of a third of its bus business to private providers before the planned merger. Accordingly, the Minister for Traffic Affairs, Hubert Gorbach of the FPÖ, and Postbus/ÖBB management jointly designed 32 regional 'sales packages' across the whole country, with each constituting a complete, independently operating business unit including bus lines, personnel, facilities (buses etc), premises and workshops. Altogether, the 32 'sales packages' comprise 16.4 million kilometres of bus routes (of these, 14 million currently belong to Postbus AG) and are worth between EUR 40 and EUR 50 million . The 'sales packages' were offered to purchasers via newspaper advertisements in June 2004.

The split and partial sell-off of Postbus services planned by ÖBB management and the government has provoked harsh criticism from workers' representatives. Both the GPF union and the works council fear that at least 600 Postbus employees will lose their job in the course of the partial sale of the company. However, the representatives appear to have accepted that the privatisation process cannot be stopped. For that reason, they have focused their demands on job security guarantees for the whole staff, and in particular for those employees who will be directly affected by privatisation. According to a proposal by GPF, employees directly affected by the sell-off process should formally continue to be employed by the ÖBB bus company, and hired out to private bus companies (in a similar way to temporary agency workers) instead of being transferred. However, experts claim that such a solution would, in the long run, constitute a legally problematic situation. Apart from this, a majority (about two-thirds) of the current Postbus employees still have career public servant status, carrying absolute protection against dismissal. This means that these employees cannot be transferred to private-law companies without their explicit consent (which would most probably be achieved - if at all - in exchange for payments).

In view of these problems and in the face of the employees’ protests, Minister Gorbach has promised to consult with the Postbus works council and GPF in order to find a solution that takes into account the workers’ interests. Correspondingly, he has told ÖBB management to provide expert advice on the legality and practicability of the hiring-out model proposed by GPF. If the government and workers' representatives fail to reach an agreement by autumn 2004, the latter are likely to organise strikes, as happened in 2002 and 2003.

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