Renewed dispute over railworkers’ service regulations
In the face of the continuing financial difficulties of Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), the government announced in November 2005 plans to alter the railworkers’ 'service regulations', which have partially been governed by collective agreement since 2004. The government’s aim is to relax the ÖBB employees’ current protection against dismissal in order to deal with perceived overstaffing. The Union of Railway Employees (GdE) has threatened strike action in protest against these plans.
At the beginning of November 2005, the conservative-populist coalition government and the management of the state-owned Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB) launched a debate over possible changes to the railworkers’ current statutory 'service regulations'. At present, more than 80% of ÖBB employees are career public servants (Beamte) enjoying permanent tenure that carries absolute protection against dismissal. The Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Infrastructure (including transport affairs), Hubert Gorbach, announced the government’s willingness to introduce a Federal Railways Service Regulations Act (ÖBB-Dienstrechtsgesetz) in order to relax the railworkers’ current protection against dismissal. Furthermore, the government aims to restrict by law the current special ÖBB early retirement scheme, which is laid down in the Federal Railways Pensions Act (Bundesbahnpensionsgesetz, BB-PG). This enables the company to pension off employees early for solely business reasons, without any requirement for a medical certificate (AT0308202F). According to the minister, the relevant draft legislation should be pushed through parliament within the next months. The background is the perceived poor financial performance of the ÖBB.
The position of Mr Gorbach has partially been backed by the chief executive of the ÖBB Holding Company, Martin Huber, who urged the government to relax the law giving employees protection against dismissal. Mr Huber argues that the ÖBB management needs to be legally equipped with appropriate means to shed surplus employees who refuse to move to another ÖBB workplace, including the option of dismissals. In particular, if the government implements its plans to restrict the company’s right to pension off surplus employees early by amending the BB-PG, dismissals on a relatively large scale would be inevitable, Mr Huber stated. Of the present 47,000 ÖBB employees (of whom about 43,000 are actual railworkers, while the rest are employees of ÖBB subsidiaries such as a bus company), it is planned that around 9,000 will be either shifted to another workplace within the ÖBB group or made redundant by 2010.
2004 collective agreement
This initiative by the government and the ÖBB management to amend the railworkers’ current service regulations is noteworthy, since two years ago, on 14 November 2003, the government and the Union of Railway Employees (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner, GdE) concluded an agreement that ended major strike action organised by GdE in protest against thorough-going restructuring of ÖBB planned by the government. This agreement stipulated that the government would refrain from enacting its own draft of new service employment regulations if the social partners involved reached a collective agreement on this issue by the end of April 2004 (AT0312103F). The ÖBB management and GdE concluded a general collective agreement on 1 May 2004, which was explicitly approved by the government. This 2004 general collective agreement, which lays down new service employment regulations for the whole ÖBB group, provides for:
- new working hours regulations. Special leave regulations providing for holiday bonuses were replaced by general regulations in line with the Working Time Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz, AZG) and the Act on Rest Periods (Arbeitsruhegesetz, ARG) that apply to employees in the private sector;
- a reduction of the number of automatic wage increases during a career from 14 to nine, by extending the periods between increments from two years to three;
- the adjustment (ie reduction) of sickness benefits to a level equivalent to that for employees in the private sector;
- the abolition of a veto right for staff representation bodies over the dismissal of employees on disciplinary grounds; and
- a flexible use of personnel within the ÖBB group, which means that an employee can be moved within ÖBB even without his or her consent.
Overall, these measures are supposed to have saved costs of about EUR 100 million per year. Both Mr Gorbach and the State Secretary for Traffic Affairs, Helmut Kukacka, praised this agreement shortly after its conclusion as being in line with the government’s expectations in terms of modern service employment regulations.
However, when the ÖBB management placed almost 600 surplus employees into early retirement under the special ÖBB early retirement scheme in the beginning of 2005, and when, in addition, some railworkers took legal action against their redeployment (according to the new provisions laid down by the collective agreement), the government started reconsidering an initiative to settle the railworkers’ service employment regulations unilaterally by law. According to the ÖBB management, this should be done by laying down a so-called 'extended service obligation' (erweiterte Dienstpflicht), which would determine the possibility to hire out railworkers to external companies and to dismiss them if they refuse to be either moved within the ÖBB group or hired out to an external user company. The introduction of such an 'extended service obligation' is seen as necessary in order to enable the ÖBB management to continue successfully with its company restructuring efforts.
GdE threatens industrial action
Wilhelm Haberzettl, the chair of GdE, has expressed outrage about the repeated attempts by the government to abolish unilaterally the railworkers’ protection against dismissal. He denies the claim by ÖBB management and the government that the new provisions on the railworkers’ service regulations collectively agreed in 2004 have proved inappropriate in terms of the flexible use of ÖBB employees. Rather, he claims, management has failed to utilise fully the opportunities in terms of employee mobility provided by the collective agreement. This, he states, is because the new structure of the ÖBB - which was split up into five independent joint-stock companies and a number of subunits under the umbrella of a new, relatively weak ÖBB Holding Company in the course of the 2003 restructuring process - impedes the pursuit of a coordinated and coherent personnel policy. About 300 workers who have replied to internal job advertisements and thus proved ready for an internal redeployment have not yet been released from their jobs, Mr Haberzettl states. Hence, he presumes that the main feature of the government’s legal initiative with respect to the railworkers’ service regulations is not the promotion of the employees’ flexible use, but the planned dismissal of thousands of railworkers. Therefore, GdE has threatened major strike action like that in 2003, when the ÖBB employees managed to prevent a legal amendment to the service regulations envisaged by the government (which had already aimed at a relaxation of the railworkers’ protection against dismissal) by going on strike for several days (AT0312103F).
When the ÖBB management and GdE in spring 2004 managed to conclude a collective agreement that includes innovative provisions on the railworkers’ service employment regulations, the government explicitly approved the results. Some months before, the government pushed a thorough restructuring of the ÖBB company (which meant mainly the splitting of the company into a number of separate enterprises) through parliament. Representatives of the coalition government then praised, in particular, the ÖBB reform, but also the collective agreement as appropriate and necessary measures for making economies in future. However, the government had ignored warnings from many quarters, including the then ÖBB management and the Court of Audit (Rechnungshof, RH), that the division of the company would be likely to result in a splitting up of responsibilities that would impede the pursuit of a coherent, long-term business strategy. After the implementation of the ÖBB reform, such criticism seems to have proved right, since the company currently faces severe difficulties in terms of efficiency, coherent strategic orientation and finances. Against this background, many commentators consider the current efforts of the government to point to the alleged overstaffing of ÖBB, the alleged 'privileges' of railworkers and the alleged 'destructive' role of the unions by refusing any legal amendment to be a strategy of disguising its own responsibility for miscarried business policies. Notably, from this perspective, the government’s attempts effectively to invalidate the 2004 collective agreement by unilaterally imposing a new law on the railworkers’ service regulations means not only a breach of the government’s agreement with GdE of 14 November 2003, but also a dismantling the (relative) autonomy of the collective bargaining parties involved. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)