Europe's labor strikes: Last gasp before reform

I've had my flight plans changed, my daily commute interrupted, my fire safety threatened, and, according to recent reports, soon I might not be getting my mail.

Yes, living in Europe means dealing with strikes - lots of them.

During the past two years, British Airways workers, Irish airport workers, London Underground and Rail Drivers, and British firefighters (yes, firefighters) have all walked off the job, as might Royal Mail workers soon.

Things aren't much better in continental Europe. In May and June, strikes in France shut down the country's airports, its train lines, and much of the Paris Metro network, costing the nation $306 million. Those with lingering post-war anti-French feeling might have enjoyed the sight of the French snarled in traffic (more than 100 miles of it getting into Paris) and surrounded by festering piles of rubbish, thanks to striking garbage men.

But temporary inconveniences aren't the worst of it. If strikers succeed at blocking urgently needed pension, labor, and public-service reforms, they'll severely damage efforts to revitalize the European economy, reduce unemployment, and sustain future services.

Europeans have always prized the fact that they work less and vacation more than Americans, and that the state doles out handsome pensions, and universal healthcare, while promoting labor laws that keep public sector workers securely employed.

But after 50 years, the welfare state is facing a crisis. As Europe's population ages, public-sector pensions have become a major drain on government budgets. European companies are becoming less competitive globally because rigid labor laws make it harder to hire and fire. Generous unemployment benefits mean it's more profitable for many to remain jobless, and for those who do work (especially in the public sector), there is little desire to adopt any reform that might erode cushy work practices.

So, as governments attempt to increase retirement age, reduce unemployment payments, and mandate more efficient working practices they are being met with widespread strikes and work stoppages.

The French strikes resulted from government attempts to require all public sector workers to spend 40 years on the job - from 37.5 now, and eventually up to 42 years by 2020 - before collecting pensions. By American standards, such workers are spoiled - they enjoy a 35-hour workweek, several weeks of vacation, full healthcare and education, and a shorter work lifetime than their private-sector counterparts (who must spend 40 years on the job before collecting). But the French are fighting restructuring. With pension payments already consuming up to 14 percent of French GDP, there may not be much left to go around once today's youthful earners have retired.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's attempts to reduce Germany's high unemployment rate (10.4 percent in May) by cutting benefits and liberalizing labor rules has also stirred discontent. He's trying to push job-seekers back into the market by trimming the time they can collect full unemployment benefits from 32 months to 12 months for those under 55 years old and to 18 months for those over 55. He could also reenergize German industry by giving companies greater flexibility to hire and fire, letting them base such decisions on productivity and performance, rather than seniority (now the main determinant).

In Britain during the past year, firefighters staged five strikes to demand higher wages and protest modernization plans that would increase working hours. But they alienated much of the public by preventing soldiers who replaced them from using fire equipment (forcing the soldiers to rely on outdated military fire engines from the 1960s). After threatening to outlaw further strikes, the government came to an agreement with the firefighters, offering a 16 percent raise over the next three years instead of the 40 percent demanded by labor.

Europe's social democratic leanings have always meant widespread support for organized labor. But union militancy is wearing thin on many Europeans, tired of increasingly unpleasant and inconvenient strike tactics. More people are also realizing that the long-term economic growth and well being of many are being sacrificed to preserve the costly benefits of a vociferous few.

In France, this frustration inspired a reform movement, including a huge rally led by antistrike activist Sabine Herold. She told London's Sunday Times: "We really don't have a choice. The system will explode if these reforms are not carried out ... there is a majority who suffer in silence during these dreadful strikes in which the country is taken hostage by a minority of left-wing unions."

If strike action doesn't strand me on the train platform or at the airport, I'm off on vacation next week. I hear a few days at the beach can temporarily relieve strike-induced stress, but the real cure can only come when Europeans accept the need to reform and stop tolerating those who would prevent it.

Margalit Edelman is a writer and media director of the International Policy Network, in London.

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