Disagreement over future role of trade union federation

In the autumn of 2006, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) held a ballot of its members and organised a series of regional member conferences concerning the future orientation and structure of the country’s trade union movement. These generated, however, a very low level of participation from members. Trade unions were divided over whether the future union structure should be characterised by a strong umbrella organisation or greater autonomy of the ÖGB affiliate unions.

Consequences of BAWAG bank scandal

In the wake of the financial scandal concerning the BAWAG bank, owned by the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), which had been uncovered in the spring of 2006, the country’s trade union movement has come under considerable pressure. As a result, the former ÖGB leaders were forced to resign (AT0604019I). Moreover, to compensate for the bank’s temporary security fund of €900 million guaranteed by the Austrian federal state in order to avert the bank’s and thus ÖGB’s impending insolvency, ÖGB has been forced by law to sell all of its BAWAG shares by the end of 2006. The future lack of dividend payments from the bank to the union means that membership dues will constitute the only source of revenue. Therefore, ÖGB is currently reviewing strict cost-cutting measures and a wide reform of its organisation (AT0605029I) in order to stop the present wave of member resignations and to maintain its political power.

Before taking any steps towards an organisational reform, the ÖGB leadership has launched several initiatives to improve membership participation. The aim of these initiatives is to demonstrate the federation’s willingness to include as many trade union members as possible in the drafting of the forthcoming restructuring programme.

Ballot and conferences

From 4 September 2006 to 18 October 2006, ÖGB held a ballot (although not exclusive to its members) in an attempt to legitimise its current leadership and to be provided with a mandate to carry out internal restructuring. In contrast to the expectations of Rudolf Hundstorfer, ÖGB’s interim president, who had hoped for some 250,000 people to cast their vote, only about 58,300 persons actually voted. ÖGB asked its members and other interested persons to respond to a wide range of questions concerning their general attitude towards and demands expected of unions as well as their views on the planned union reform. However, as experts from within ÖGB have also commented, the design of the questionnaire was so poor that most union members refused to respond. Some union representatives called the ballot a ‘superficial cover-up measure’ to represent participation opportunities, while the actual competences for future decision-making will remain with the small circle of people from the ‘old ÖGB establishment’. This opinion seems to be widespread, which has thus resulted in an extremely low turn-out of voters.

Apart from the ballot, ÖGB also organised so-called ‘regional conferences’ throughout the country in the autumn of 2006. These events were a form of regional assembly for union members devised to discuss pending union problems with representatives of the union leadership. However, participation in these conferences was also extremely low, with a total of only about 4,000 persons present at the 27 conferences held throughout the country. The extremely low turn-out for the ballot as well as the scant participation of union members in the regional conferences have been viewed by commentators as a deliberate ‘boycott’ of the union’s efforts by the vast majority of its members.

Inter-union dispute

In adition, the ÖGB umbrella organisation has also to face serious a disagreement among its affiliates over the unions’ future organisational structure. During recent months, two distinct and mutually exclusive concepts of unionism have been proposed.

On the one hand, a group of member unions, headed by the Union of Public Employees (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD) and the blue-collar Metalworking, Textiles, Agriculture and Food-Processing Union (Gewerkschaft Metall, Textil, Nahrung, GMTN), have called for the strengthening of the organisational, political and financial autonomy of the affiliates at the expense of the umbrella organisation’s power. The idea is that autonomous unions or merged blocks of unions are more capable of effectively using their resources and developing particular industry strategies than the umbrella organisation, which would subsequently need to largely reduce resources.

On the other hand, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), which merged with the blue-collar Printing, Journalism and Paper Union (Gewerkschaft Druck, Journalismus, Papier, DJP) on 16 November 2006 to form GPA-DJP (AT0603029I), favours a more centralistic concept of unionism. GPA wants to dissolve the member unions by 2012 and to establish one single united trade union instead, which would be subdivided into several branch units. The organisation argues that the current parallel union structure has not prevented the emergence of deficiencies in terms of content, strategies and personnel, and that one united trade union can respond more powerfully and coherently to political and economic challenges than smaller affiliations.

The decision on the future organisational structure of the Austrian trade union movement will be taken at the ÖGB general assembly (Bundeskongress) scheduled for 22–24 January 2007.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment