Union seeks greater autonomy from confederation

At its general congress in January 2007, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) approved new ÖGB statutes which entitle affiliated unions to establish themselves as societies with partial legal capacity. When the chair of the affiliated Union of Public Employees (GÖD) failed to be elected as a member of the new ÖGB board, he announced GÖD’s readiness to make use of this new possibility for achieving greater autonomy from the umbrella organisation, particularly in financial terms. However, the initiative has met with criticism from representatives of most of the other affiliated unions.

From 22 to 24 January 2007, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) held its sixteenth general congress (Bundeskongress), the ÖGB’s highest governing body, at the Austria Centre Vienna (ACV). At its congress, the trade union federation adopted the first step of an internal restructuring process; this was deemed necessary in the wake of the conflict related to the financial scandal concerning the Bank for Employment and Commerce (Bank für Arbeit und Wirtschaft AG, BAWAG) and the former ÖGB leadership’s involvement in this controversy (AT0604019I). The applications and proposals for a comprehensive reform of the trade union submitted at the congress were largely based on the results of ballots and regional conferences organised throughout the country during the autumn of 2006 (AT0611029I).

New ÖGB statutes

On 23 January 2007, after interim ÖGB President Rudolf Hundstorfer presented a reform paper for the restructuring of the federation, the general congress debated and eventually approved the new statutes of the federation. In particular, a majority of 369 delegates adopted the following main provisions:

  • the right of the ÖGB affiliates to establish themselves as partially incorporated societies, that is, associations with partial legal capacity;
  • a threshold for the net income of all union functionaries fixed at €5,800 a month;
  • strengthening of the rights of smaller factions represented in ÖGB bodies; for example, the chair of the control commission must no longer be held by a representative of the strongest faction;
  • the proportion of female representatives in ÖGB bodies to be at least as high as the share of women in the total membership;
  • a new ÖGB board consisting of 20 members to be elected by the general congress.

Election results

On 24 January 2007, Mr Hundstorfer was elected as the official ÖGB President, as expected, securing a majority vote of 84%. In contrast, the election of the ÖGB board members did not run as smoothly as anticipated, as the initial election proposal failed to be approved by a majority of the delegates. Specifically, the Chair of the affiliated Union of Public Services (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst, GÖD), Fritz Neugebauer, along with the Chair of the women’s organisation in the ÖGB, Renate Csörgits, failed to receive a majority of the votes. Evidently, both candidates did not convince the delegates that they represented ‘innovative leadership’ of a ‘new’ trade union movement.

Move to break from ÖGB

In an initial response to his failure to be elected as a member of the ÖGB board, Mr Neugebauer, who is also a member of the parliamentary faction linked to the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), accused the strongest faction in ÖGB, which is linked to the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ), of having staged a ‘concerted action’ against him. At the same time, he announced that the trade union would ‘draw conclusions from the ÖGB general congress’, whereby GÖD would make use of the new ÖGB statutes by re-establishing itself as a partially incorporated society as soon as possible; this would signify greater autonomy for the GÖD affiliate, particularly in terms of finances, organisational structure and political strategies.

Referring to the ÖGB involvement in the recent BAWAG scandal, Mr Neugebauer claimed that the envisaged autonomy of member unions would in the future prevent them from being liable for criminal action performed by a few ÖGB representatives. Moreover, Mr Neugebauer wants to re-negotiate the contributions to be paid by GÖD, which is financially the strongest ÖGB affiliate, to the umbrella organisation. However, it has remained unclear so far how this autonomy would be legally realised. Most experts consider that, in the event of a re-constitution of GÖD as an association with legal status, a formal re-entrance of the current union members would be inevitable for their membership of the new organisation – a process which could prove risky.

Response to GÖD plans

President Hundstorfer, who is a member of the faction linked to SPÖ, regretted Mr Neugebauer’s ‘removal’ from the board, but strongly denied any suspicion of conspiracy against the GÖD chair. Results of democratic elections have to be accepted, the president emphasised. Other representatives of the same faction and of the Independent Unionists of the Public Service (Unabhängige GewerkschafterInnen des Öffentlichen Dienstes, UGÖD) have blamed Mr Neugebauer for having repeatedly prioritised his loyalty to ÖVP ahead of his political mandate as a trade union official.

Moreover, the trade union chair was reproached for his physical absence from the ÖGB general congress and for having threatened the GÖD ‘secession’ even in the run-up to the congress in January. Most representatives from the ÖGB-affiliated unions besides GÖD – and even some from GÖD – have perceived the union’s attempt to ‘split off’ from the umbrella organisation as a lack of solidarity which shows reckless disregard for its potential impact on the country’s trade union movement as a whole.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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