Unlike the U.S., Europe has strong, influential labor unions; yet they have been unable, or unwilling, to stop the austerity-based policies demanded by European institutions, reports Andrew Spannaus.
By Andrew Spannaus Special to Consortium News
in Milan, Italy
Railway workers are striking across France, bringing up to 80 percent of high-speed trains to a halt in recent days. In a major European country dependent on rail for a significant portion of its transportation, the protests are predictably causing chaos, as organized labor flexes its muscles to show that it is still a force to be reckoned with.
On April 10, German airport workers also went on strike, leading to the cancellation of over 800 flights by the national air carrier, Lufthansa. In this case the dispute is over a pay increase for around 2.3 million public sector employees, who have seen their incomes stagnate despite the country’s economic growth overall.
Such protest actions are not uncommon across Europe, and indeed have come to be accepted as a fact of life in many countries. Labor union membership varies greatly throughout the continent, from less than 10 percent in France – despite the effective strikes – to a high of around 70 percent in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Denmark. Yet even when their membership figures are modest,unions often have a central role in collective bargaining, and they are eager to show that they are still relevant in a world that has changed greatly due to deregulation and globalization over the past 35 years.
Organized labor’s clout in Europe is declining though, which should not come as a surprise. One of the central tenets of the economic policies followed by the European Union is “flexibility” of the labor market, part of the overall neoliberal philosophy that views any sort of restrictions and rules on labor and capital as stifling profit-making, free enterprise.
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