European trade unions fight cost of living crisis

Depending on who you ask, Europe is either experiencing a “summer of hot strikes” by workers defending their rights, or a “summer of discontent” destroying vacation plans for millions.

There is no doubt that strikes are coming back into fashion. Walkouts on Britain’s railways are the worst in decades, telecom workers have downed tools for the first time since the 1980s, air disputes across Europe affect the industry’s post-pandemic return , and doctors and teachers could be next in line.

Worse still, there is more to come. Further strike action is expected across the national rail networks, continuing a summer of disruption, with National Rail and workers’ unions locked in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions. The staff will be disengaged this weekend Saturday as well as Thursday and next Saturday.

Alongside the heatwaves reminiscent of Britain’s great ‘Summer 1976’, the plethora of strikes also has a ring of the 1970s when workers downed tools and brought the UK to a standstill, with bins and rubbish piled up in the streets for weeks, the starkest sign of a struggling country.

Workers have reason to be unhappy: Prices are soaring as wages stagnate, employers are cutting costs after the Covid-19 economic missile, and labor shortages are forcing people to work long, tiring hours.

Nurses, lawyers, bus drivers, railway workers, firefighters, airport, postal and telecom workers and trash pickers are among the many workers to have walked off the job or threatened to strike as the cost of living crisis gathers pace. Some employers have been forced to concede large wage increases to defuse tensions, a decision criticized by Bank of England Governor Andrew Baileywho said this month that unorganized workers without a bargaining platform to demand higher wages would be hardest hit if inflation spirals out of control.

Unions have not been popular with some European politicians who accuse them of holding people to ransom and insisting on privileges their workers could do without.

But the unions insist that “we are not here to annoy passengers”, as Eoin Coates, head of aviation at the European Transport Workers’ Federation, put it. The National. “We have to adapt to a post-Covid society.”

Strikes at European airports – in pictures

Travel issues

Strikes across Europe are adding to travel industry woes as long queues, cancellations and staff shortages dash people’s hopes of having their first hassle-free summer holiday in three years .

Lufthansa canceled 1,000 flights after ground staff left in Frankfurt and Munich. EasyJet pilots voted for a nine-day strike, while Heathrow Airport was only spared chaos after British Airways staff called off a walkout.

Norwegian Air has agreed to a 3.7% pay rise and other benefits for its pilots, while Lufthansa has offered a three-step pay rise in a sign of what airlines have to offer to hold unions together. distance.

Mr Coates said there were two main causes of workers’ anger in the sector: the cost of living problems which are reaching their peak across Europe and the workload at which the staff of the airport is facing after the dismissal of so many colleagues.

The shortages were illustrated by undercover footage at a UK airport showing passengers taking matters into their own hands and climbing onto a carousel in an attempt to speed up the baggage handling process.

“We saw workers working longer hours than they had ever worked before. They have to deal with a lot more disruptive passengers, a lot more angry passengers,” Mr Coates said.

“We are not here to cause more anger and more frustration. I think most passengers are unhappy with the lack of capacity at the airport.

The moment of the unions

Unions are certainly back in the spotlight. Mick Lynch, the pugnacious boss of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, has become something of a celebrity on the left for his television appearances in which he regularly lash out at ministers and employers.

Hoping to capitalize on his appeal, an assortment of left-wing groups and MPs this week launched a movement called Enough is Enough, promising to hold rallies and picket lines to demand big pay rises in line with inflation galloping.

“There’s always another crisis and it’s always the workers who pay the price,” said Dave Ward, leader of the Communications Workers’ Union and a member of the emerging movement that sees the official Labor opposition as too soft.

“We have suffered the biggest wage cut in history and workers want to work harder and faster for less. It’s time someone else paid the price.”

But comparisons between Mr Lynch and the once powerful labor barons of the 1970s and 1980s, such as miners’ strike leader Arthur Scargill, are likely to generate unfavorable opinions in political circles.

If a decade can be a scarecrow, the strike-filled 1970s were exactly that for Britain’s Conservatives, who are in the process of selecting the next prime minister and still proudly boast of taming the militant unions of the time.

Prominent conservatives have complained about union tactics and claimed that railway workers are fighting in the trenches for esoteric rights, such as restarting a lunch break if an official just says hello.

Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the leadership race, has promised to limit the powers of unions by raising the voting threshold required to force a strike and requiring four weeks’ notice for industrial action.

“I will do everything in my power to ensure that militant union action can no longer cripple the vital services that workers rely on,” she said.

winter fears

The industrial action is taking place against the backdrop of a growing energy crisis in Europe that will only heighten people’s concerns about the cost of living.

In the fallout from the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has cut gas supplies to many European countries and even those, like Britain, which do not import much directly from Russia, are caught in the ripple effects .

More than a third of UK National Health Service staff could be set to strike after a union representing cleaners and porters refused a 4% pay rise it described as miserable .

As the winter price squeeze draws closer, officials fear picket lines will give way to violent protests.

Germany fears that extremists who have taken to the streets to oppose the coronavirus lockdown are exploiting the cost of living crisis to solicit a new wave of support.

French President Emmanuel Macron is all too aware of his country’s reputation for rioting, particularly after the long “yellow vest” protests that marred his first term.

Mr Coates said he hoped dialogue between unions, employers and sometimes governments would calm the atmosphere, but said he believed many customers were on the workers’ side.

“We all have the same problems,” he said. “From the general public, I would say the support has been very strong.”

Updated: August 12, 2022, 07:47

Michael A. Bynum