Social Democrats make gains in Chamber of Labour elections

The five-yearly round of elections of representatives on the governing bodies of the Chambers of Labour - the statutory bodies that represent workers in Austria's system of social partnership - was completed in May 2004. The elections resulted in overall gains for candidates representing the political factions affiliated to the parliamentary opposition, in particular the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), and a loss of support for those linked to the governing conservative and populist parties.

The Chambers of Labour (Arbeiterkammern, AK), alongside the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), represent labour within the Austrian system of social partnership. Unlike ÖGB, membership of which is voluntary, AK is an obligatory interest representation body. Accordingly, all employees covered by the AK’s legally demarcated membership domain, both blue-collar and white-collar, must belong to the AK. This obligation embraces all employees, apprentices, people on maternity/paternity leave and unemployed people (AT0004218F), with the exception of two distinct groups of excluded employees: executive staff (ie managers equipped with the power to employ people); and employees in most parts of the public sector (except for railway and postal service employees, who do belong to the AK’s membership domain). Present total membership is about 2.6 million. The Chambers also represent the interests of retired employees.

Structure of Chambers of Labour

The Federal Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK) is the umbrella organisation of the provincial Chambers of Labour (Landeskammern) which are set up for each of the nine provinces (Länder). The BAK is in charge of all tasks of relevance to the whole of Austria, or to several provinces. According to the Chambers of Labour Act (Arbeiterkammergesetz, AKG), both the BAK and the provincial AKs are self-governing public entities.

The main bodies at the provincial Chamber level are the general assembly (Vollversammlung), the executive committee, the President and vice-presidents. Every five years, elections are held among members (ie the employees belonging to the provincial AK's domain) to the nine provincial Chambers’ general assemblies. Each provincial Chamber is headed by a president who is elected by the general assembly. The president by statute represents the Chamber in all matters, and is supported by the vice-presidents, the executive committee (of which the president and vice-presidents are also members) and expert staff.

The BAK, the 'peak' national body, is structured in a similar way to the nine provincial Chambers. Its principal bodies are the main assembly (Hauptversammlung) - which is composed of the delegates from the provincial Chambers - the executive committee and the president (plus vice-presidents). It should be noted that the Vienna provincial Chamber of Labour also functions as the administrative body of the BAK. For that reason, its staff by far outnumbers that of other provincial Chambers. Moreover, since most labour issues are dealt with at the level of the federal state, the BAK is the key actor within the AK framework vis-à-vis the authorities and the main employers’ organisations. In total, the Chambers of Labour employ a staff of about 2,500 employees, of whom 700 work for the Vienna Chamber.

The 2004 elections

The Chambers of Labour at both central and provincial level maintain close ties with the trade unions and the political parties, and the political factions within the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) - each of which is linked to a particular political party - nominate lists of candidates for the Chamber elections. Over a period of several weeks in spring 2004, the five-yearly elections were held to the provincial general assemblies, in line with AK’s statutes. The elections were completed in May.

The 2004 AK elections saw considerable gains for the candidates representing the Social Democratic Trade Unionists (Fraktion Sozialdemokratischer Gewerkschafter, FSG), which is affiliated to the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokrtaische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ). Overall, FSG won 63.4% of the vote, up 5.9 percentage points in comparison with the last elections in 1999/2000 (AT0007224N). In contrast, the Austrian Workers’ Federation (Österreichischer Arbeiter- und Angestelltenbund, ÖAAB) which is affiliated to the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), suffered an overall loss of 2.4 points, receiving 23.7% of the vote. The Freiheitliche Arbeitnehmer (FA), closely linked to the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), was the main loser, with its electoral support halved to only 4.8% of the vote. The Alternative and Green Unionists (Alternative und Grüne GewerkschafterInnen, AUGE) linked to the Green Party (Die Grünen, GRÜNE) won 4.3% of the vote, compared with 3.6% in 1999/2000.

Political implications

The election results have strengthened the political factions within the Chambers of Labour linked to the parliamentary opposition parties - SPÖ and GRÜNE - and in particular FSG, which has traditionally dominated seven of the nine provincial Chambers and, most importantly, BAK’s decision-making bodies. The president of the BAK, Herbert Tumpel of FSG, expressed his satisfaction with the outcome of the 2004 AK elections and called upon the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government to amend its general policy line, which he deems hostile to employees. Interestingly, faced with the overall losses for their factions, representatives of both ÖAAB and FA have to some extent made similar criticisms.

The chair of ÖAAB, Werner Amon, demanded that the ÖVP should pay more attention to welfare matters when initiating future reform plans targeting the social security system. If the ÖVP fails to remember its roots as a party of 'social integration', he claimed, this will create severe tensions within the party. Some ÖAAB representatives, such as the faction’s chair in the province of Salzburg, even demanded a government reshuffle or at least the replacement of the Minister of Economy and Social Affairs, Martin Bartenstein of the ÖVP. Mr Bartenstein’s activities have been perceived by an increasing number of labour representatives, including some from ÖAAB, as being almost exclusively business-oriented. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of ÖVP refuted such criticism by referring to a series of measures to the benefit of employees introduced by the government during recent years. Furthermore, he questioned the representativeness of the AK vote due to a turn-out of only about 50%.

Commentary

In the early 1990s, decreasing turn-out rates in AK elections as well as non-transparent personnel policies in conjunction with a pay structure which was widely perceived as unfair put severe pressure on AK and its representatives. In this context, criticism was advanced mainly by the FPÖ. This threatened the AK’s position in Austria’s system of policy-making. In particular, the legal provision for the obligatory AK levy (Kammerumlage) amounting to 0.5% of all members’ gross incomes (up to a certain maximum threshold) was a matter of public debate. However, internal restructuring of the AK - including a new pay scheme as well as a ballot on the principle of compulsory membership held among all AK members in 1996 - strengthened the AK’s position, since more than 90% voted in favour of the existing interest representation system based on obligatory membership. Although the political prospects for organised labour have deteriorated since the ÖVP-FPÖ government took power in February 2000 (AT0109201F), the AK’s representational activities as well as its widening range of services to its members (in particular information and advice on issues such as labour law, social insurance, tax law, women’s and family policy, or consumer protection) has solidified the Chamber’s acceptance within the population. The outcome of the 2004 round of AK elections may be taken as evidence that most employees share the AK’s criticism of recent government reforms addressing the social welfare system (AT0401203F). (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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