Lawyers agree to give minimum wage to their employees

In Austria, lawyers are organised outside the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber structure. Since these separate lawyer chambers refused to enter into negotiations over minimum pay standards or to revaluate existing agreements, the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists launched protest action. In response, the lawyers’ federal chamber association amended its professional rules, by stipulating a monthly minimum pay rate of €1,000 for all employees in law offices.

In July 2007, the national-level social partner organisations – that is, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO) – agreed on the introduction of a gross monthly minimum pay rate of €1,000. This agreement is to be implemented by the sectoral bargaining parties by 1 January 2009 at the latest (AT0707019I).

However, this scheme does not cover employees in liberal professions and in agriculture, since these occupations do not fall within the WKO’s representational domain. As a result, thousands of poorly paid employees engaged by farmers, doctors, lawyers and other liberal professions, who are organised in separate professional chambers outside the WKO structure, will fail to benefit from the social partner agreement on a minimum wage. This is due to the fact that representatives of these occupations have refused to either join the bargaining table or enter into negotiations over higher minimum wage standards.

Case of lawyers

Lawyers in Austria are one of the liberal professions who fail to pay their employees a minimum wage exceeding the threshold of €1,000 a month. In four of Austria’s nine provinces (Länder) – Vorarlberg, Salzburg, Carinthia and Upper Austria – no collective agreement exists covering this legal profession, which forms part of the real estate, renting and business activities sector. In the five remaining provinces, the collective bargaining process has been suspended, as each of the five regional Chambers of Lawyers (Rechtsanwaltskammern, RAKs), which act as employer organisations representing the lawyers of each province, has refused for years to apply the revaluation of the collectively agreed minimum wage standards to law office employees. Thus, this profession is among the few remaining sectors of the economy which pay monthly wages below €1,000 to certain categories of its employees.

Trade union protest

The Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, Druck, Journalismus, Papier, GPA-DJP) represents and organises the employees concerned. For several years, the trade union has repeatedly called on the RAKs to return to the bargaining table or to enter into negotiations, in order to introduce an overall minimum pay rate of €1,000 a month. So far, these efforts have remained unsuccessful. Therefore, GPA-DJP launched an email protest action against the lawyers’ refusal to participate in collective bargaining over the summer of 2007. Moreover, on 21 September 2007, the President of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers General Assembly (Österreichischer Rechtsanwaltskammertag, ÖRAK) which is the highest governing body of the RAKs, was in Vienna to be awarded the so-called ‘collective bargaining lemon of the year 2007’. The trade unions symbolically ‘award’ employers with the ‘bargaining lemon’ if the latter have undermined the bargaining process in the former’s point of view (AT0610059I).

Following this event, on 4 October 2007, GPA-DJP organised further protest action to inform the public and confront the lawyers with the trade union’s demands in the Lower Austrian city of Krems, where a major lawyers’ conference was being held. First, GPA-DJP aims to establish collective agreements in each province, providing for monthly minimum pay rates of €1,000 and annual wage increments. In a mid-term perspective, the trade union then wishes to shift away from the multiplicity of provincial arrangements to one uniform national-level collective agreement; this agreement should be concluded by GPA-DJP on behalf of the employees and by ÖRAK on behalf of the employers.

Response of lawyers

Some leading representatives of the lawyers, who felt troubled by GPA-DJP’s protest activities, initiated proceedings against the trade union’s actions. Meanwhile, the RAKs continue to oppose the introduction of binding, collectively agreed minimum pay regulations as demanded by the union. Alternatively, they have preferred a way of self-commitment: on 5 October 2007, the RAKs agreed to guarantee future minimum pay rates of €1,000 a month for the whole sector. In light of this, ÖRAK endorsed an amendment to the lawyers’ professional rules (Standesregeln) providing for a corresponding obligation. GPA-DJP welcomed this move but still demands to establish normal – that is, uniform, sector-wide collective – bargaining procedures on a regular basis, in order to institutionalise an annual revaluation of pay rates. The trade union argues that the lawyers’ self-commitment can by no means be a substitute of equal value for collectively agreed rights as these may be subject to suit in a court of law.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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