Print media employer association withdraws from bargaining table

In May 2006, the voluntary employer Association of Regional Free Print Media withdrew from social partner negotiations on the first-ever collective agreement in the free print media subsector. In publishing, the industrial relations model differs from standard practice in Austria in that only voluntary employer organisations are involved in collective bargaining. In response to the employers’ withdrawal from the negotiations, trade unions organised protest measures in September 2006, threatening to stop the printing of free publications of the companies concerned as part of their strike action.

On 20 September 2006, the white-collar Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) and the Printing, Publishing and Paper Products Union (Gewerkschaft Druck, Journalismus, Papier, GDJP) organised a joint ‘action day’ in protest against the decision of the Association of Regional Free Print Media (Verband der Regionalmedien, VRM) to withdraw unilaterally from collective bargaining negotiations. Some 300 participants gathered for the protest held in front of the premises of VRM in Vienna.

The employer association was presented with the so-called ‘collective bargaining lemon of the year 2006’. This ‘award’ is symbolically conferred by trade unions to employers who, in the former’s point of view, have undermined the bargaining process. After two years of unsuccessful negotiations between GPA/GDJP and VRM, the latter unexpectedly broke off talks in May 2006 concerning the introduction of the first-ever collective agreement for the free print media sector.

Industrial relations in publishing

The industrial relations model in the publishing sector differs from standard practice in Austria, insofar as only voluntary employer organisations are involved in the collective bargaining process. Bargaining in Austria’s private sector is generally carried out by the branch sub-units of the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), of which membership is obligatory for virtually all companies. Thus, collective bargaining coverage in the private sector comes close to 100%.

However, Austrian publishing companies have hitherto successfully refused to join WKÖ. The publishing industry argues that mandatory membership to any organisation would impair the right of free speech, on which the print media sector is based. Therefore, publishing companies are organised and represented – if at all – by voluntary employer organisations only. These associations comprise the:

  • Austrian Newspapers’ Association (Verband Österreichischer Zeitungen, VÖZ), which represents daily newspapers and weekly journals and magazines;
  • Austrian Association of Journals (Österreichischer Zeitschriften- und Fachmedien-Verband, ÖZV) as the voluntary representative interest organisation of periodicals with a minimum of four issues and a maximum of 26 issues per year, as well as some smaller weekly journals and magazines;
  • VRM, which represents free print media with a local or regional range. In March 2006, this association represented 35 publishing houses, producing some 120 individual titles.

Whereas both VÖZ and ÖZV have concluded collective agreements on behalf of their members, each one representing at least 50% of the respective branch in terms of employees, VRM has failed to reach an agreement so far. In a written statement delivered to all employees of the VRM member companies in the summer of 2006, the association’s president, Erich Postl, justified the organisation’s withdrawal from bargaining. He argued that most publishing houses would not see any necessity for sector-level regulations and that the trade unions had proved unwilling to accept the unique characteristics of the free media branch. Therefore, a continuation of bargaining would be useless.

Trade unions threaten printing boycott

However, the trade unions involved have called for a collective agreement for the free media branch in order to establish fair and uniform working conditions in this area, particularly with respect to pay and working time. At present, GDJP represents technical workers and journalists in the publishing sector, while GPA’s constituency in publishing is limited to administrative staff only. Nevertheless, the two unions decided to merge their organisations in November 2006 in order to streamline their organisational structures, thereby consolidating their finances and also strengthening their bargaining power (AT0603029I).

If the employer side continues to refuse to negotiate, the trade unions have threatened to stop printing the newspapers and periodicals of the free media branch as part of a limited strike action. In addition, at the end of September 2006, GPA applied to the Federal Arbitration Board (Bundeseinigungsamt) to initiate an extension procedure. The unions want the existing collective agreement for newspapers and magazines to be extended to the free print media sub-sector. Such an extension procedure is possible in areas of employment where no employer representative body exists or for which no collective agreement has been signed.

In September 2005, an extension order was already issued by the Federal Arbitration Board in this field when a sub-sectoral collective agreement – concluded by ÖZV on behalf of employees working on journals and magazines and by GDJP on behalf of journalists – was extended to all companies of the branch. Therefore, the strategy of the unions appears to be promising.

Georg Adam, University of Vienna

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