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Commentary on Austrian Strike

Erik's Rail News November 2003

The Austrian government has likely used the railway to employ surplus workers in order to keep unemployment artificially low. Obviously this comes into conflict with running the railway as efficiently as possible.

In any event, railways need to be able to lay off workers now and then unless traffic increases substantially. This is a near-mathematical certainty analogous to that the Titanic's designers knew the ship would sink if a certain number of the watertight compartments filled with water.

The reason is that technical refinements in train design and maintenance lets the railway do more with less; a 25% faster train needs 20% fewer workers to transport the same number of passengers. This speed increase is not unrealistic over 20 years, and trains have also become easier to maintain as a result of all the effort made in this area over the years.

The surplus of train crew and maintenance staff cannot be moved to administration or customer support as internet, telephone and general information technology have reduced the need for staff here too. Austria pioneered trains tickets by SMS (mobile phone).

Keeping in mind that train traffic was stagnant untill the new millenium, it's hard to pretend that many of the workers at the railway wouldn't doing more good in non-railway jobs. For this reason, I believe the opposition Social Democrats are being populist in supporting the strike. The reform can be done smoothly or roughly, but it needs doing.

And lastly, the union reportedly spread leaflets with this text: Derzeit finden Reformen statt, die wir weder Ihnen als Bahnkunde noch unseren Mitarbeitern zumuten wollen. Daher sind wir als Arbeitnehmervertreter gezwungen, Ma▀nahmen zu ergreifen. Translation: Currently reforms are taking place, which are reasonable for neither you as a railway customer nor our workers. Therefore we as worker representatives are forced to take measures.

The union is stepping on my toes here: I really don't like being told what's good for me. It's insulting to be told that I can't have my own opinion about the reform and that this may not agree with the union's.

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