Constitutional amendment endorses role of social partners

In December 2007, the Austrian parliament passed an amendment to the Austrian Constitution, which acknowledges and promotes the central role of the social partners. While the initiative has largely been welcomed by the main social partner organisations, the parliamentary opposition and the Federation of Austrian Industry have strongly criticised the move. Moreover, the amendment fails to regulate the issue of compulsory membership of the chambers.

Following heated discussion, on 5 December 2007 the Austrian parliament passed an amendment to the Austrian Constitution, which explicitly recognises the central role of the social partners in the country’s system of policymaking. In the amendment, the government makes an explicit commitment to promote the industrial relations actors, in particular the chambers. However, the initiative has received a mixed response – a result which can be understood in the context of the country’s industrial relations system.

Strong tradition of social partnership

Austria’s industrial relations system has mainly been characterised by a specific and highly developed corporatist system of social partnership. This system has secured continued political and social stability since World War II and – apart from a short period of disruption in the wake of an ambitious public pension reform in 2003 (AT0306201N) – has remained largely intact, even in recent years. A significant feature of Austria’s social partnership system is its strong influence on socioeconomic policymaking, in particular regarding pay and incomes policy, which have always been highly attuned to economic requirements. This pattern of corporatist cooperation has contributed to Austria’s outstanding socioeconomic performance in terms of its relatively low unemployment rates and, apart from the situation in 2003, ‘social peace’ (AT0305202F).

The key actors within this corporatist system are the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and the Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK) on the employees’ side; on the employers’ side, the central actors comprise the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO), the Chamber of Agriculture (Landwirtschaftskammer Österreich, LKÖ) and, to a certain extent, the Federation of Austrian Industry (Industriellenvereinigung, IV). The fact that social partnership has developed into a permanent and stable element of Austrian society is, among other factors, due to the close links between organised labour and the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ), on the one hand, and to similar links between employer organisations and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) on the other (AT0109201F).

Temporary decline in tripartite corporatism

The stable system of tripartite corporatism was questioned only in the period following 2000, when the coalition government comprising the ÖVP and the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) came into power. During that time, the conservative-populist coalition government overtly challenged social partnership by systematically disregarding tripartite talks in general and ignoring worker representatives’ views in particular. Nevertheless, the corporatist system has recovered since the formation of the ‘grand coalition’ government – comprising the SPÖ and the ÖVP – in January 2007. However, the social partners’ experience during the early 2000s, whereby their influence has been largely contingent on the composition of the government, has evoked their desire to have their role and significance guaranteed in the Austrian Constitution.

Proposal and legislative outcome

As a result, in 2007, the three chambers – that is, the AK, WKO and LKÖ – urged the current SPÖ-ÖVP government to lay down legal provisions specifying their central role as social partners in the Austrian Constitution. This is due to the fact that the chambers, membership of which is based on legal obligation, fear that compulsory membership – and thus their financial basis – might one day be questioned. In fact, in recent years, debate over the appropriateness of obligatory membership of the AK and WKO, as well as the obligatory AK levy (Kammerumlage) and WKO membership dues, have flared up, resulting in far-reaching organisational reforms in both chambers (AT0406202F, AT0512202N). The chambers’ original intention was not only to determine their outstanding role as social partners in the Austrian Constitution, but also to safeguard their chamber status and the principle of mandatory membership through the most superior law.

However, following strong protests against the preferential legal treatment of only a few selected organisations, put forward by the IV, the parliamentary opposition and chamber organisations other than AK, WKO and LKÖ, the government revised its initial proposal. Accordingly, instead of explicitly listing the three chambers in question which were initially to be exclusively addressed, the final draft, which was eventually endorsed by the parliament on 5 December 2007, only makes a general emphasis on the significance of Austria’s social partners and refers to ‘self-governing’ bodies only. The new Article 120a (paragraph 2) of the Austrian Constitution now states the following:

The Republic of Austria acknowledges the role of the social partners. It respects their autonomy and promotes the social partner dialogue by setting up self-governing bodies.

Criticisms from various sides

The amendment to the Austrian Constitution has evoked considerable criticism from the various sides. Whereas the ÖGB, as a ‘core’ social partner implicitly addressed by the new provisions, appears to be largely satisfied, the IV, which is neither involved in collective bargaining nor a chamber organisation equipped with special consultation rights, feels discriminated against. Likewise, the parliamentary opposition has argued that the existing status of the social partners should not be carved in stone forever.

An expert in public and labour law at the University of Vienna (Universität Wien), Gerhard Strejcek, has made a number of principle objections against this amendment. Firstly, he argues that it remains unclear whether the new provisions signify a kind of warranty of continued existence for the social partners or even something more. Secondly, compulsory membership of the chambers, which is regulated by normal legislation, is – in contrast to the chambers’ initial and essential intention – not targeted by the amendment and thus remains at the disposal of the vote of a simple majority of the deputies in parliament. Thirdly, Mr Strejcek points to a tendency to overload constitutional law with superfluous legal ‘ballast’. He emphasises that it is not the task of the Austrian Constitution to legitimise and legally reproduce the political status quo (Realverfassung), particularly since the social partners have hitherto proved to be solely a political and empirical category and not part of the jurisprudence. Moreover, following the accompanying legal comments to and prevailing interpretations of the amendment, the current social partner organisations seem to be strictly determined. According to Mr Strejcek, this counteracts the traditional role of the Austrian Constitution as a general legal framework and raises the question of whether and how an organisation other than those already established could acquire the status of a social partner organisation.

Commentary

Austria has long benefited from its highly developed social partnership system. Therefore, it is understandable why both the ‘traditional’ political parties and the ‘core’ social partner organisations want to legally safeguard this system – particularly against the background of their experiences in the early 2000s. During these years, the conservative-populist coalition government pursued a policy line which systematically disregarded the positions of the social partners and partially dismantled traditional corporatist structures.

However, it is also questionable whether the current, exclusive status of the social partners is to be determined by constitutional law. On the one hand, this is likely to prevent ‘alternative’ trade unions and employer organisations, such as the IV, from becoming a ‘core’ social partner organisation. On the other hand, it cements the current status quo, which is likely to be an impediment to further organisational reforms of the chambers and the ÖGB. Moreover, the amendment to the Constitution is so vague that, according to prevailing opinion, it remains completely unclear whether the new provisions imply a simple warranty of the current social partners’ continued existence or even more. In any event, the amendment does not cover the issue of compulsory membership of the chambers, and thus fails to meet the initial intention of at least the AK and WKO in this respect.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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