Labor

An alternative to the strike? Yes. A good one

WALTER STEWART January 24 1977
Labor

An alternative to the strike? Yes. A good one

WALTER STEWART January 24 1977

An alternative to the strike? Yes. A good one

Labor

Dr. Irene Geldner fiddled thoughtfully with her pencil, contemplating the question. Satisfied, she looked up and smiled. “Of course, a man could go on strike if he wanted to. but it would not be polite.” Nor, she added, would it be very useful: “The other members of the union would not like a man who strikes.”

Dr. Geldner is a Vienna economist, on the payroll of the Austrian Chamberof Labor. thoroughly committed to the cause of the workingman. She is also dead right. Unions in Austria don’t like strikes, seldom support them, and tend to frown on the instigators. In 1974. the last year for which comparable statistics are posted by the International Labor Organization, 592,220 Canadians went out on strike, and 7.295 Austrians. The handful of Austrian strikes were mercifully brief; they lost 4,243 working days that year; Canada lost more than nine million.

The Austrians’ remarkable record has been achieved through a series of formal and informal institutions, and not all of them are transferable to the Canadian environment. In general, the watchword in Austrian labor matters is Austria has evolved a “social partnership.” in which labor, business, agriculture and government all assume that each has a responsibility to the others. Workers belong to the Chamber of Labor, farmers to the Chamber of Agriculture, businessmen to the Chamberof the Economy. Membership is not voluntary but automatic, and everyone

has a vote in his appropriate chamber. Because Austria, like Canada, is a federal state, the chambers are organized at the provincial level, then centralized through headquarters in Vienna. In addition, most workers belong to unions, which are voluntary. The unions bargain for wages and conditions, but under the guidance of the chambers.

Members chosen from each of the chambers meet, with government officials, in the Parity Commission for Wages and Prices, a body that has no formal existence in law, although it has been functioning successfully since 1957. The Parity Commission is chaired at its monthly meetings by either the federal Chancellor or the Minister for the Interior—giving it class and clout—and its job is to discuss and review policy and to decide on wage and price issues handed up to it by various subcommittees. who consider the competing claims of employers, employees and farmers. Generally, the subcommittees settle disputes by unanimous vote, but when that fails the full commission steps in.

Every Austrian, at every corner of the bargaining table, would rather give a little than provoke a confrontation. If any sector gets out of line in one year’s settlement, it is expected to give up more the next. The unions, which did well in 1975 and 1976. will be content with less this year. “We will get about 8% this year.” says labor economist Dr. Ferdinand Lacina. “We will ask for more, but that is what we will get.” The Austrian system assures labor peace and a substantial control over inflation. Although affected by the behavior of its lesscivilized trading partners, the nation has posted one of the best inflation records in Western Europe over the past few years.

The system works, in part, because Austria is an egalitarian, welfare state. There is virtually no unemployment. Taxes are high; ambitions small. Austrians do not have the sense that they are being taken advantage of; businessmen and workers regard each other with wary respect—the other chaps may be wrongheaded and stubborn, but they are not thugs. All reside in the same boat, content with patient progress and no rocking. This patience is born of history. The last German troops were ushered out of Vienna in 1955 and no Austrian wants to go through all that again. No one is allowed to forget that today’s freedom and prosperity would vanish again if Austrians indulged in the luxurv of self-destructive greed. The alternative to stability with freedom is subjugation. WALTER STEWART