Regional Secretary, PRO-GE Vienna

“Some say, ‘Live and let live.’ I can only live well if I can allow others to live well and be able to look after their needs.”

On Toni Steinmetz’s desk stands a small iron statue of the clock tower located in Enns, his hometown in Upper Austria. It’s not just a souvenir, but also a memento of his first job as a foundry apprentice.

Steinmetz remembers what his father would often say when he came home from the foundry: “If it wasn’t for the union, they would take everything away from us!”

This left an impression. So, for the past 27 years, Steinmetz, 54, has been working for the rights of workers at the PRO-GE (Produktionsgewerkschaft), – originally the Union for Metal Workers and Coal Miners – the largest union in Austria.

Trade unions play an essential part in Austria’s complex system of social partnership, which relies on cooperation between representatives from labor, industry and government to negotiate the interests of employers and employees. This system has been responsible for Austria’s impressive track record of collective work agreements that guarantee generous benefits like regular wage increases and guaranteed holiday bonuses. Steinmetz likes to put it in more simple terms. “We have a saying: ‘Discussion brings people together.’ Even when everyone has different opinions, we can always find a solution.”

Negotiations that he’s been involved in range from issues as diverse as fair methods of vacation planning to culturally sensitive bathroom facilities to guaranteed wage standards for employees returning from maternity leave.

Although he is proud of his organization’s many achievements – for example, in the metal industry, PRO-GE has an 80 percent membership rate – he is worried about the future, especially given the current political climate.

“Discussion doesn’t seem to be valued in the current government. I think this could really be a threat to our democracy.”

Steinmetz also sees recent developments, such as an increase in maximum working hours, as a cause for concern. He believes that companies who think they will benefit from such amendments are grossly misguided.

“In Austria, employers can be happy that, as a result of good working conditions, Austrian workers are loyal to their companies. If this becomes overstrained and respect is lost, this might all change.”