Well before a volcano wreaked havoc with Europes air transport, travellers across the continent were coping with the effects of labour disputes that had an old-fashioned tinge. Strikes by flight attendants afflicted British Airways for seven days last month. In February a stoppage at Germanys national carrier, Lufthansa, was declared illegal after the first daybut still caused disruption.
Frances railways are in the grip of a strike led by communist unions over new work practices and job cuts. In Britain a rail strikeit would have been the first since 1994was averted this month by a last-minute court ruling. Londons underground trains have already been disrupted. On April 21st, French newspapers did not appear; print and distribution workers went on strike for the fourth time this year.
And on several fronts, unions are joining hands across national boundaries. Britains Unite union, which represents flight attendants, among others, held talks with Americas Teamsters, whose 1.4m members include 40,000 air-industry workers. United Steel Workers, another big American union, sent a delegation of support to Mexicos Cananea copper mine, where workers have mounted a three-year strike.
Elsewhere, firms are feeling the knock-on effects of unrest in any part of a global production line. General Motors had to halt car output at several of its American plants because of a strike at Rico, an Indian firm that makes parts. Among rich countries, France has lived up to its name as a hotbed of militancy. There has been a spate of boss-nappingtaking senior managers hostageoften in foreign-owned firms. French employees of a tyremaker, Continental, went on the rampage (see picture) when their jobs were axed. Labour unrest has even struck nations with a cooler-headed image. In March a two-week strike by Finnish dockworkers crippled the countrys exports, including those from the vital timber industry. And in Britain, in particular, there is a creeping sense of dj vu: as in 1979, an unpopular Labour government is living out its final weeks amid taunts from the Conservatives that it is soft on the unions.
Yet for all the sound and fury, none of the recent news implies that industrial relations around the world have returned to the dire state of two or three decades ago. By historic standards, they are still pretty good, insists Paul Nowak, national organiser of Britains Trades Union Congress.
Statistics bear him out. In virtually all rich countries, union membership and the amount of time lost to strikes has plunged. The days when unions had big strike funds, and could ride out long disputes, are mostly gone. (Where long strikes do occuras in Mexicothey reflect desperation more than muscle.) And that decline seems to have accelerated with the recession. Downturns have opposing effects: they make workers angry but also reduce their bargaining power.
In Britain, for example, the number of working days forfeited to strikes fell to 460,000 in 2009 from 1.04m in 2007. (In 1979 the figure was 29m.) In Denmark, which saw an uptick of unrest among nurses and care-workers in 2008, industrial workers voted this week to accept their unions recommendation of minimal pay rises. In Poland barely 13,000 workers were involved in strikes last year, compared with 209,000 in 2008. And despite Indias record of violent labour disputes, the number of days lost between January and November last year was a tenth of the average for the previous five years. A recession is not the most propitious time to strike, says Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO, Americas largest labour federation.
In some countries, admittedly, workers patience may be waning. In Poland, for example, unions are moving away from the passive position they adopted when the recession struck and want some reward for their restraint, says Jan Czarzasty, an industrial-relations analyst.
But amid many other effects, globalisation has on balance weakened unions. American firms can now credibly threaten to ship jobs to Asia or Mexico. With whatever strength they still have, unions are replacing business as the chief advocates of protection. In September 2009, when America slapped tariffs on Chinese tyres, it was in response to unions, not local firms. And the Teamsters have won a curb on the right of Mexican trucks to operate in the United States. But the unions ability to lobby for anything is limited by splits in their ranks. In Sweden workers in manufacturing face keen competition and have moderated their wage claims; those who work in retailing are more strident. But the weak, divided state of the labour movement does not mean that the world can expect industrial peace, punctured by odd outbursts. Confrontation may be looming in the public sector of industrialised countries, where harsh cuts look inevitable and unions remain strong.
America recently crossed a threshold: a majority of union members are now government workers, not private-sector ones. As of last year, just 7.2% of private-sector employees were unionised (a total of 7.4m) whereas in the public sector 37.4% (or 7.9m people) belonged to unions. The share of private-sector workers in unions was the lowest since 1900, whereas in the public sector the share is edging upwards.
Public-sector unions are much less subject to market discipline and foreign competition than private-sector ones; strikes by providers of essential services have a harsher effect on the economy than one at a private firm with competitors.
And it is the public sector that will bear the brunt of the coming crunch. By 2014 the public debt of the leading rich countries will reach an average of 110% of GDP, up by almost 40 percentage points from 2007, says the IMF. Reducing these levels, some of the highest ever seen in peacetime, will be a brutal job. Taxes may be part of the mix, but in most cases, spending will have to be slashed.
In France a fight with public-sector unions is on the horizon, for reasons predating the recessionthe government has long been eager to get a grip on the spiralling cost of pensions. It wants to raise the legal retirement age from 60; the unions call this right non-negotiable, and most citizens seem to agree.
Even in countries where the governments have kept public-sector wage rises low, strains are showing in other ways. Canadas federal workers have been told that pay rises of 1.5% this year and next can go ahead as agreed, but that costs will have to be cut to fund them. Unions fear part-time jobs will be axed, adding to the burden on remaining workers and lowering standards. Ontario, the largest province, is imposing a pay freeze, and the city of Montreal is offering less than unions want, though it is open to productivity deals, of the kind that has produced win-win solutions to some Canadian disputes.
Canada is one of several rich countries where the public sector is seen by voters as ripe for change after a decade of benign treatment. Ireland, meanwhile, is often cited as a country where public-sector workers have reacted to a sharp downturn with impressive self-denial. In February 2009 they were asked to take a 7% pay cut, and offered only token resistance; this was followed by further reductions in December. A fresh package of reforms (promising no further pay cuts for four years, and holding out the chance that cuts will be reversed) was agreed on March 30th, but union members may yet vote to reject the deal; not all agree with the compliant stance of their leaders.
Ireland has been rewarded for its self-discipline by lower borrowing costs. But in other troubled European economies, abnegation is less evident. European Union and IMF negotiators, tasked with rescuing the Greek economy, flew into Athens this week to find a public-sector stoppage in full swing, with the main union seeking a reversal of all austerity measures.
In Romania, too, public-sector unions are up in arms over spending cuts that were decreed under a bail-out agreed with the IMF and EU. Portugals public workers held a 24-hour strike in March to protest against a wage freeze. Dutch local-government workers are also mounting one-day strikes over a pay freeze; and on April 10th government workers marched through London chanting: No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts. Yet cuts there will be, whoever wins the British election.
How well governments manage to trim their public sectors, without triggering an explosion, may depend on elusive factors like trust in the political system. Ken Georgetti, head of the Canadian Labour Congress, said his members were more worried about attacks on their pensions than about wages. Still, strife between the government and its employees was not inevitable, in his view. If they try to take away, there will be pushback from unions for sure. If they bargain, it might work.
Paradoxically, in countries where the public sector is big and dysfunctional, trimming it may be hardest because its employees have a strong sense of entitlement. At this weeks meeting of G20 labour ministers in Washington, DC, with union leaders also present, Mr Georgetti was struck by the militancy of his counterparts from Spain, Greece and Turkey. They are angry about whats happening in their economies, and the price they are paying. Its very emotional for them.
The Economist Newspaper Limited