Significant losses for Social Democrats in Chamber of Labour elections

The 2009 round of elections to Austria’s Chambers of Labour saw a sizeable loss of support for the social-democratic group, although it still holds an absolute majority of votes. In contrast, the faction linked to the populist Freedom Party could clearly increase its share of the votes, albeit at a relatively low level. Commentators consider this outcome as a sign of opposition to the current erratic policy pursued by the Social Democratic Party as leader of the coalition government.

During the spring of 2009, the five-yearly round of elections of representatives on the governing bodies of the Chambers of Labour (Arbeiterkammern, AK) took place. The structure and function of the AK as well as the election results are briefly outlined below.

AK constituency and function

In Austria, AK constitute the other element of worker representation in the country’s social partnership system, alongside the trade unions under the umbrella of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB). By European standards, the chambers are a unique institution, since a legally established body representing employee interests, with compulsory membership and a constituency comprising virtually all of the country’s private sector employees, is unknown in any of the other EU Member States. AK mainly provide advisory and other services to members, but also operate as a source of expertise for both ÖGB and the government authorities in matters of economic and social policy. They thus complement the interest representation function of the trade unions (AT0004218F). In contrast to the trade unions, the chambers refrain from assuming collective bargaining responsibility, although they are legally equipped with the capacity to conclude collective agreements. Therefore, a clear division of responsibilities – while maintaining a practice of close cooperation – between the trade unions on the one hand and AK on the other hand has been established. Due to obligatory membership of all private sector blue-collar and white-collar workers – with the exception of some executive staff and agricultural workers only – including employees, apprentices, people on parental leave and unemployed people, the current total membership of the chambers is about 2.7 million people.

AK structure

According to Austria’s federal structure, the organisational structure of AK is regional, which means that there is a separate chamber in each of the country’s nine provinces (Länder). The Vienna Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer Wien, AK Wien) also operates as the administrative body of the Federal Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK), which is the umbrella organisation of the provincial AK (Landeskammern). The BAK is in charge of all tasks of relevance to the whole of Austria, or to several provinces. Both the BAK and the provincial AK are self-governing public entities (AT0406202F).

In each province, a general assembly (Vollversammlung), which is a type of employees’ parliament, is elected by equal, direct and secret ballot among members for a period of five years. Each provincial AK is headed by a president to be elected by the general assembly. At federal level, the BAK’s main assembly (Hauptversammlung) is composed of the delegates from the provincial chambers and elects the president of the BAK, who represents the AK in all matters of relevance at national level. This position has traditionally been held by a representative of the Social Democratic Trade Unionists (Fraktion Sozialdemokratischer Gewerkschafter, FSG), which is by far the strongest political division within both ÖGB and AK.

2009 election round

The 2009 round of elections, which started in February and ended in mid May, saw considerable losses for the candidates representing FSG, which is affiliated to the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ). FSG suffered an overall loss of 7.6 percentage points in the number of votes in its favour in comparison with the last elections in 2004, nevertheless regaining a comfortable overall majority of the votes at 55.8%.

In contrast, the Austrian Workers’ Federation (Österreichischer Arbeitnehmerinnen und Arbeitnehmer Bund, ÖAAB), which is closely linked to the conservative Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), slightly increased its share of the votes by 1.2 percentage points, gaining almost 25% of the overall vote.

The Freedomite Employees (Freiheitliche Arbeitnehmer, FA), affiliated to the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), was the main winner of the election, with an increase of 3.8 percentage points in the share of the votes, receiving 8.7% of all votes cast in the election.

Lastly, the Alternative and Green Unionists (Alternative und Grüne GewerkschafterInnen, AUGE), closely linked to the Green Party (Die Grünen, GRÜNE), won 4.7% of the vote, compared with 4.3% in 2004.

Reaction to outcome of vote

In his initial response, the BAK President, Herbert Tumpel of FSG, conceded ‘bitter losses’ for his organisation, which he largely attributed to ever decreasing turn-out rates in AK elections, thereby suggesting that most of the non-voters would arguably be satisfied with the chambers’ current policy line. The turn-out rate in the 2009 AK election round stood at 43.8%, down from 50% in 2004.

In contrast, most commentators claim that both the declining turn-out rates and the losses for FSG ensue from the present erratic performance of SPÖ, which is the senior partner of the current social-democratic and conservative coalition government with ÖVP. In the public perception, it is argued that the lack of a clear-cut social-democratic policy line irritates many employees, particularly against the background of the current economic downturn and growing unemployment.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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