Union merger plans dropped
In September 2004, it was announced that plans for a large-scale trade union merger among affiliates of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), initially launched in 2001, had been dropped. Differing 'corporate cultures' among the unions and inter-union conflicts over the distribution of power and posts are thought to have been among the key factors in the merger's failure.
On 8 September 2004, the president of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), Fritz Verzetnitsch, announced the definite failure of a union merger initiative involving four ÖGB affiliates. This announcement did not come as a surprise, since long-standing disagreements between the unions concerned have flared up during recent months (AT0406201N).
In autumn 2001, the two most powerful affiliates of ÖGB, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) and the blue-collar Metalworking and Textiles Union (Gewerkschaft Metall-Textil, GMT), had announced that they intended to merge their organisations (AT0110205N). In so doing, they had bypassed both ÖGB and its other member unions, since this decision thwarted long-standing plans of ÖGB itself to launch a less radical organisational reform by reducing the number of member unions from 13 to eight (AT0104212N). Since these ÖGB plans apparently did not meet the interests of GPA and GMT, they started their own merger project. Subsequently, three other unions joined the merger process aimed at creating a new 'centre of gravity' within the trade union movement: 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). The idea of this large-scale merger plan was to strengthen the unions’ position by improving the coordination of their bargaining policies across different sectors of the economy and centralising their political strategies.
However, after each of the unions concerned had implemented the merger programme internally during 2002-3, it soon became clear that negotiations among them on how to build the new union would prove difficult. In official terms, the most problematic issues proved to be future organisation, a planned joint move into new premises, and finances. The latter issue was particularly highlighted by a conflict between GPA and the four other unions over what should be seen as 'core' union activities. The context was that GPA runs several well-performing residential building businesses and a shopping mall, which - from the point of view of all unions except for GPA - are businesses not directly related to 'core' union tasks. However, according to a member of the ÖGB presidium, this dispute, while it exists, has largely been used as a pretext to hide the true reasons for disagreement: a 'cultural clash' between blue-collar workers and white-collar workers (with the latter often being the organisational superiors of the former in the workplace), as well as inter-union conflicts over the distribution of power and posts. According to the ÖGB presidium member, it is these issues that appear to have caused most unrest within each of the five unions concerned. This resulted in a withdrawal from the merger project by GdE in May 2004 and subsequently in its complete failure in September 2004.
In the face of this failure, it is unlikely that ÖGB itself will launch another reform initiative in the next future. The recent incidents have doubtless damaged the image of the country’s trade union movement. Moreover, the failure may have an impact in another respect, since GPA and GMT have traditionally maintained intense cooperative ties in the area of collective bargaining, usually starting the annual autumn bargaining round and setting the tone for negotiations by the other unions (AT0210202F). However, both GPA and GMT have emphasised that the failure of the planned merger has nothing to do with their day-to-day bargaining practice. There are currently no signs that the recent inter-union disharmonies will spill over and cause problems in the joint GPA-GMT bargaining teams.