Legal Un-Ethics

Paralegals and Clerks Have Been Left Out of the Minimum Wage; The Bar Says it’s “Unnecessary”

GPA trade unionist rallied Sept. 21 for a minimum wage; the sign reads “We Wont Be Silenced!” | Photo: Barbara Lavaud

Private sector trade unionists rallied Sept. 21 in the hopes of convincing the Austrian Bar Association to incorporate the new law on minimum wage in their branch collective agreement.

On an unnaturally crisp but sunny autumn day in Vienna’s Inner City, amongst the scowls of onlookers both inside and outside of the bar association headquarters, trade unionists gathered with a large banner bearing the statement “We won’t allow ourselves to be muzzled.”

In July, the Austrian Trade Union Federation and the Federal Chamber of Commerce reached an agreement on the implementation of a minimum gross wage of €1,000 for all collective agreements. According to the Austrian social partners, 30 000 workers would profit from this new law. However the bar association’s refusal to codify the €1,000 minimum monthly wage in their collective agreement is a bone of contention between the Union of Private Sector Employees (GPA) and the Austrian Bar Association (ÖRAK).

“It is inconceivable that in the year 2007, we have to take to the streets for €820 in take home pay!” said Wolfgang Katzian, Chair of the GPA representing 13 000 law clerks, paralegals, secretaries and law office employees who are not fully covered under current labour law.

The Bar Association claims that a minimum wage is both inappropriate and unnecessary.

“Because attorneys need motivated staff and a fair and performance based remuneration is a given, a collective agreement has proven to be unnecessary,” said Dr. Gerhard Benn-Ibler, president of the ÖRAK, in a statement on the Austrian Press Agency text service. “Most of the net salaries are much higher than those in the collective agreement. Lawyers and their staff count on each other for performance and trust.” Taking responsibility for their workers and “having a social conscience rank high” in their list of priorities, Benn-Ibler said.

But a GPA employee who was a former trainee lawyer at an attorney’s office took the floor at the rally and, armed with a microphone, gave an account of what she encountered.

“For a gross salary of €1000, we would work 80 hours a week and, if need be, on weekends,” she said. “This works out to an hourly wage of €4 an hour! We also had no social protection, meaning that from this meagre salary, we also had to pay into a private pension system.

“The employees that I worked with believed they had no rights.”

The GPA has called for a new round of collective bargaining to address employment terms for all other law firm employees, including the implementation of the €1,000 minimum monthly wage in the collective agreement for employees in attorneys’ offices, yearly negotiations for increases in wage minimums due to the inflation rate,  yearly negotiations for the remuneration of apprentices and trainees, and the beginning of negotiations for a collective agreement for trainee lawyers to replace the current “rules of conduct” which are not legally binding.

However trainee lawyers have no collective agreement, attorneys’ representatives have so far been completely unwilling to negotiate. So the GPA started an e-mail campaign in late summer challenging the bar association. In turn, the bar filed a counter suit against the trade union on the grounds of harassment under the telecommunications law.

During the rally, the leading representatives of the GPA, Wolfgang Katzian, Karl Proyer and Claudia Kralbast, brought the managing board of the bar a papier-mâché lemon, symbolising the sour state of collective bargaining, and a petition signed by over 1,300 concerned trade unionists and trade union members hoping to find a basis for discussion.

So far, the Austrian Bar Association has held its ground, insisting that the GPA action is irresponsible and counterproductive. In a gesture that he said was “not intended to be cynical,” Bar Association President Benn-Ibler countered the gift of the lemon with a gift of the Bar Association’s tradition whistle, that he said would “give the Union back its strong voice.”

However this did not appear to imply a willingness to compromise.

“I hope that the Union will demonstrate once again that they represent a profession that requires practical training,” said Benn-Ibler, in a statement on the ÖRAK website, “and are as cognizant of our implementation of the regulations as the professional staff, so that they can be welcomed again as a responsible member of the Social Partnership.”

The Union position appears to be equally committed. “If it is true that almost all attorneys pay their staff more than €1,000, well than it is a mere formal detail to codify it in a collective agreement,” so Karl Proyer of the GPA at the rally.

“We won’t give up,” says union leader Wolfgang Katzian. The GPA plans to continue to demand talks with the Bar Association until they are ready for collective bargaining rounds.

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