Summer of Strikes Don’t Auger Well for Europe
Are we on the eve of new industrial unrest?
With a summer of industrial discontent looming in the UK and unrest across several sectors in various EU member states, it is a moot point.
What is clear is that more stoppages are on the way even though union membership itself is, generally, declining in most European countries.
Upcoming strikes on the railway network, and possibly other sectors, in the UK, have revived memories of the 1970s, a decade bedeviled by industrial unrest.
The UK trade union movement seemed at the height of its powers in the 1970s, bringing down governments and recruiting millions of new members.
Things today are a far cry from then, but it is again the public sector which is the most militant in terms of strike action and, despite declining membership, trade unions have attempted to regain some of their former influence.
What does this say about the state of industrial relations in Europe?
From the outside, the current state of “Brexit Britain,” with a cost-of-living crisis and widespread strikes, may provide ammunition to those Remainers who forecast the UK would be worse off outside the EU.
But “Britain bashing” aside, some EU member states, particularly France, have plenty of similar concerns in their own public sectors.
France itself has been hit by a wave of industrial action already this year, with the aim being to call for better pay and working conditions in response to the rising cost of living.
Strikes and demonstrations by everyone from teachers to airline pilots have been held across France in the first half of 2022 with more planned, resulting in significant disruption to public sector services.
France regularly, though not always, tops the European tables for days of strike action.
Unions may be increasingly flexing their industrial muscles but, in France, union membership has fallen from almost 20 percent in 1980 to about 10 percent. In Germany, it has fallen from 35 percent to just under 20 percent, according to data from the OECD.
Union membership in Austria has stabilized at around 18 percent in the last few years from around 50 percent in the mid-seventies. In the Netherlands, it declined from 40 percent at the start of 1960 to stabilize at 18 percent.
Union membership in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland remains high – around 70 percent – partly because unemployment and other social benefits are paid out through unions. Free of the stigma that can be associated with organized labour, members are also eligible for a range of services not available to non-members, from representation in job interviews to free cooking classes.
It could be (take note UK) that this is one reason why Scandinavian countries, generally, still seem to enjoy better industrial relations than the likes of the UK and France.
Norway, for example, traditionally has a good record when it comes to industrial action. The average number of days lost to strike action, per 1,000 employees was just 2.4 between 2010-19, the last period for which reliable figures are available. The next lowest were Austria (2.1 days) and Switzerland (1.5 days).
In France, the figure was a whopping 121 days over the same period while in the UK it was 17.9 days.
Belgian unions, aiming to recruit from the third of workers employed by companies with fewer than 10 staff, say people have become more anxious to obtain the protection of union membership since the start of the health crisis.
The ferry and maritime industry has not escaped similar unrest and turbulence of late, with the recent P&O Ferries “sacking” furor hitting the headlines and, for some, highlighting a glaring anomaly in the UK government’s so-called industrial strategy.
The UK government reacted very differently to the planned nationwide rail strikes later this month compared to the P&O case where it initially threatened court action against the company for dismissing 800 staff. All but one of these have since accepted generous payoffs.
The ferry industry is a sector, though, which is going through particularly choppy waters at present, also highlighted by the Denmark-Germany Fehmarn link infrastructure project with a subsequent loss of ferry traffic and jobs.
The underwater tunnel connecting Germany and Denmark will cut what is now a 45-minute ferry journey to a ten-minute drive and slash train journey times between Hamburg and Copenhagen to under three hours. The €7 billion project under the Baltic Sea is set to be completed by 2029.
But the world’s longest road and rail tunnel also highlights the fragility and tough working environment of the ferry business, which will lose out big time by the project.
Controversy over so-called ‘flags of convenience’ has put the sector under additional fresh strain.
A ship is said to fly a ‘flag of convenience’ if it flies a flag other than that of its country of ownership, and, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, some nations sell their flags to foreign-owned fishing vessels but lack the capacity or will to regulate and patrol their activities.
In the case of the 800 redundancies, Grant Shapps, the UK’s transport secretary, professed “shock and dismay” at P&O’s use of the system as an alleged means to sidestep the application of UK employment laws.
But what he also pointedly failed to state is that the company, along with all other ferry operators around the world, is perfectly legally entitled to make use of the system.
Indeed, ship owners and operators use ‘flags of convenience’ registration all the time. It is a well-established practice in the industry and using ‘flags of convenience’ (in places like Panama, Liberia, Bermuda, Malta, and the Marshall Islands) is routine.
Controversy over the system is far from new. As far back as 2004, Irish Ferries was accused of denying its staff basic workers’ rights after the company adopted a ‘flag of convenience’ on its MV Normandy vessel.
In 2011, it was reported that the Maltese ‘flag of convenience’ could be purchased over the Internet for as little as $500.
P&O’s owners, DP World, say it is surprised to be criticised by a British Tory minister for using the ‘flag of convenience’ system as it was designed.
Errors may have undoubtedly been made in the past but, surely, the bigger goal is to keep this important infrastructure afloat.
The P&O case has certainly made waves but whether this summer’s strikes across Europe will do the same remains to be seen.