Europe’s struggling trade unions
Senior broadcast journalist Barnaby Phillips works for Al Jazeera.
Here’s a sobering thought for Europe’s trade unions. Throughout the long and painful story of the Eurozone crisis, from early 2010 to the present, it’s difficult to think of a single significant victory for organised labour.There have been many strikes and protests in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Some have been well attended, others not. Sometimes there has been violence, but most protests have been peaceful.But heavily indebted governments have pushed ahead anyway, with big cuts in public spending and a range of economic reforms.
Are the unions simply helpless before what they would characterise as the powerful forces of neo-liberalism and international finance? Do they lack the stomach for a fight? Or are they simply failing to present viable alternatives for Europe’s struggling economies?
Last week I went to a gathering of trade union leaders in Madrid. Representatives from France, Italy and Belgium had come to express solidarity with their Spanish counterparts. Looking at the line up on the stage I couldn’t help but notice that all the speakers were not only male, but also appeared to be on the wrong side of 55. Europeans are looking for inspiration in these troubled times, but this collection of middle aged men did not look like they represented the future. And although the meeting was headlined “Alternatives to Austerity”, speaker after speaker railed against government policies, but gave few details on how they would restore Europe to growth.
The previous week I was in Portugal, reporting on a trade union march in Lisbon, and again I was struck by the advanced age of so many of the participants. Some were heroes of the revolution of 1974, but that is ancient history for many of the young Portuguese who are caught up in the economic crisis.
This is a desperately difficult time to be starting out on a career in Europe. The youth unemployment figures in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal are staggering. Many of the best and brightest are looking to emigrate. When I talk to young people in these countries, I often have the impression that they are cynical about trade unions, and see them as part of the established political order. Sometimes, they see unions as an obstacle to progress, more interested in protecting their own privileges then in changing the economy in ways that would give younger people more chances to find work.
On March 29th, Spanish trade unions held a general strike in protest against changes in the labour law which make it easier for companies to fire workers. (The government argues that Spain’s high unemployment is partially a result of the rigidity of existing labour laws, and that greater liberalisation, will, in the long run, bring unemployment down). The strike was an important test for the unions, whose influence in Spain has been steadily diminishing for many years.
A previous general strike, in late 2010, had not had the impact that many had expected. This time, the unions were more successful. Transport and industry (two areas where Spanish unions still retain a strong concentration of members) were hit particularly hard. In the evening, there were very big demonstrations in several Spanish cities. Crucially, many young people joined marches to show their general opposition to austerity, even if they did not belong to a trade union.
I think the Spanish unions may be emboldened by this success; they are threatening more action if the government does not amend the labour law by May 1st. It will be very interesting to see how the conservative government in Spain responds. If it does decide to make changes to the law, then Spanish trade unions will have bucked the continent-wide losing trend, and at last recorded a victory for organised labour in Europe.