The representation of women's interests in Austrian trade unions

The Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) has established specific representation bodies for women and drawn up gender-specific policies, reflecting the continuing discrimination against women in economic and social life. However, in 2000, the situation of female trade union representatives and the conditions for effective gender-related union policies still seem to be problematic.

The specific interests of women are represented in two main ways in Austrian trade union structures. Sector-specific women's departments exist in all 14 unions affiliated to the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), whileÖGB has regional women's departments in all nine federal states (Länder). At the federal level, the ÖGB women's department represents the interests of all female members, pursues specific women's interests affecting more than one union, and coordinates ÖGB's gender policies. In 1999, a change at the top of the women's department took place, with Renate Csörgits taking over the chair from Irmgard Schmidleithner. At the 14th ÖGB congress in October 1999, Ms Csörgits was also elected vice-president (AT9911205F).

Aside from these bodies, several levels of policy-making and coordination on women's issues exist. The women's federal congress (Bundesfrauenkongress) held every four years is the most important political forum dealing with main policies and strategies in respect of gender-related topics. Between these meetings, the congress's responsibilities are carried out by the federal women's board (Bundesfrauenausschuß). Important coordination functions are carried out by the women's committee (Frauenpräsidium), and women staff meetings (Frauensekretäreinnentagungen).

The situation of women in ÖGB

The development of women's departments within ÖGB affiliated unions was rather uneven - see table 1 below - with departments established as early as 1948 and as late as 1993. Interestingly, unions with high proportions of female members have tended to establish such departments quite recently, since specific bodies representing female interests were not deemed necessary in unions with high female membership. However, the striking disproportion between the presence of women among the membership and the number of female representatives on union boards finally necessitated the establishment of woman's departments in these unions.

The proportion of women in the total membership of ÖGB has steadily increased over the past decades, though the overall proportion is still relatively low, at 31.8%. The trade unions organising the hotel and restaurant sector and the textiles, clothing and leather industries have traditionally been dominated by female members.

Table 1. Women in ÖGB-affiliated unions (end of 1998)
Trade union Female members Female members as % of total Date of establishment of women's department
ÖGB total 471,091 31.8 .
Hotels, restaurants, personal services (HGPD) 36,689 72.9 1993
Textiles, clothing, leather (TBL) 11,963 64.9 1974
Public employees (local) (GDG) 86,869 49.2 1949
Public employees (federal, provincial) (GÖD) 106,302 46.3 1965
Private-sector white-collar employees (GPA) 128,292 43.0 1951
Commerce, transport (HTV) 12,779 35.8 1982
Arts, media, professional (KMFB) 4,915 30.3 1974
Posts, telecommunications (GPF) 18,780 23.9 1979
Agriculture, food (ANG) 10,336 23.3 1991
Printing, paper (DUP) 3,235 17.9 1950
Chemicals (GDC) 5,804 15.3 1959
Metalworking, mining, power (GMBE) 31,600 15.3 1948
Railways (GDE) 6,523 6.3 1979
Construction, wood processing (GBH) 6,995 4.2 1949

Source: Women's department, official ÖGB statistics.

In broad sectoral terms - see table 2 below - women's unionisation is highest in the public sector. The service sector and the industrial goods production sector each account for about a quarter of total female union membership.

Table 2. Female union members by sector, end of 1998
Union groups Female members % of all female union members
Industrial goods production (blue-collar workers) 199,353 25.4
GPA* 128,292 27.2
Public sector** 218,483 46.4

* GPA encompasses white-collar employees in both industrial and service sectors; ** includes the GDE and GPF unions.

Source: Frauenbericht 1998.

Although women currently account for 32% of all union members, the proportion of female trade union officials and representatives is far lower – as has been the case for decades. This is thought to be mainly due to the multiple burden that woman face. About half of all women perform the tasks of childcare and household alongside their occupational activity, and the drop-out rate of women from the labour force increases with the number of children. Arguably, ÖGB therefore finds it difficult to persuade female union members to perform the additional tasks of acting as works councillors or trade union representatives. In fact, up until the 1990s, some union organisations faced difficulties finding full-time staff for women's departments.

Status of gender-related policies in ÖGB

The interests and needs of women, as well as their perception by trade unions, are closely linked to current socio-economic changes in Austria, and especially changes in forms of work and in working conditions. These changes also affect certain other parts of the workforce, which are subsumed under the category of "new groups" of employees, including women.

ÖGB has paid growing attention to these groups. This is manifested in the creation of three special departments which represent the interest of women, young employees and pensioners respectively. This arrangement indicates that these groups' specific needs are to be taken into account, and require special representational channels, since they do not have a strong presence in ÖGB's normal procedures for interest representation. ÖGB tends to treat women's interests as "minority needs". Resolutions proposed by the women's department have often been passed by the ÖGB congress without having any real influence on ÖGB's policy (see "Gewerkschaftliche Frauenpolitik in der Zweiten Republik. Zwischen Gleichberechtigung, Mißachtung und Besonderung von Frauen", E Ranftl, ÖGB (1996)).

The higher proportion of women in part-time employment and other "atypical" forms of work is a related phenomenon, and some male representatives cite women's statistically lower rate of active participation in the labour force as justification for refusing rules on quotas for women on all ÖGB bodies and in leadership positions. In the 1990s, a step-by-step plan on this issue was worked out by the women's department, and the ÖGB congress decided in 1995 that women should be represented on ÖGB bodies according to their membership share. Since then, female participation in trade unions has improved gradually. The Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) has taken a further step by implementing a positive action plan, which has established a women's representation quota on all GPA bodies.

Due to the creation of specific interest departments, a much more diversified spread of interests has emerged within ÖGB, which complicates the confederation's "interest aggregation" and the way in which it formulates its goals. On several occasions, disunity has been manifested within the unions' ranks, when statements by certain union representatives on official union positions have been debated (see "Austrian trade unions between continuity and modernisation", S Blaschke, A Kirschner, F Traxler, University of Vienna, Institute of Sociology (1994)).

Commentary

Evidently, the situation of female trade union representatives has improved during recent years. Nevertheless the pursuit of gender-related policies within ÖGB is still a difficult task. There is still a fear that the establishment of special representational channels like the women's department results in marginalisation within ÖGB in the form of "satellites" or "niche groups". The question is how effectively the women's department can influence union policies. The rather weak position of women in internal policy-making echoes their often precarious position in the labour market, where they make up an above-average proportion of disadvantaged groups. For instance, two-thirds of the increasing number of "minimally employed" workers are female. (Angelika Stueckler, Universität Wien)

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