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15 December 2022

Europe’s winter of discontent

Workers across the continent are striking in the face of surging inflation – but no country matches the UK.

By Ido Vock

The UK is not the only European country facing strikes this Christmas. Though more industrial action is planned in the UK than the other major economies, inflation and the rising cost of living are pushing workers across the continent to stop work.

In France unions representing workers from the SNCF, the national rail operator, have indicated that they will strike between 15 and 19 December. Clément Beaune, the transport minister, has said he is “rather confident” that major disruption will be avoided over Christmas, however.

Even if the French government is right to be optimistic, strikes are affecting large parts of the country’s train network, from the TGV long-distance links to local transport in the cities of Dijon, Bordeaux and Le Mans. Unions representing workers for Air France and easyJet have also threatened strike action over Christmas.

Christmas is often a time of showdowns between European unions and employers in sectors such as transport, although the 2020 and 2021 holiday seasons, severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, were exceptions.

In Italy, a series of staggered strikes took place between 12 and 16 December, in protest at a draft budget supported by Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister. Workers’ demands include pay rises in line with inflation and pension reforms. Sectors affected include transport, schools and universities.

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In Spain a planned strike by airport workers over the Christmas period was called off after airport operators agreed to pay bonuses, although some airline staff have said they will still be stopping work.

One notable exception to the trend of increasing industrial action in Europe is Germany, which has largely avoided the widespread disruption affecting its neighbours. In November a deal between the union IG Metall and employers in the metal and electrical sectors gave almost four million workers an 8.5 per cent pay rise. Although the rise was below the rate of inflation, which currently stands at 10 per cent in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, the IG Metall agreement prevented strike action for two years, according to the union. Some small-scale strikes have affected other sectors, such as a walkout by Airbus workers at four factories, however.

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[See also: Nurses pay is less in real terms than in 2010]

With persistent fears that the eurozone may be entering a recession and inflation likely to remain high for most of the next year, conflicts between unions and employers are likely to continue. At 10 per cent, eurozone inflation is far higher than wage growth, which was just 4.1 per cent in the second quarter. Unions are trying to close the gap. However, given that there are signs that the labour market in the EU is weakening, workers’ bargaining power may be reduced in coming disputes.

The UK is virtually unique among large European economies in experiencing widespread industrial action across several sectors simultaneously, in a confluence of events beginning to resemble a general strike (December is forecast to have the largest number of days lost to strike action in any single month since 1989). While there have been crippling strikes in other countries this year – France, for instance, suffered a petrol shortage in October as refinery workers stopped work – they have generally not happened simultaneously across as many sectors as in the UK at present.

Strike action in the UK is being taken by hundreds of thousands of workers at once. Up to 100,000 nurses stopped work today (15 December) for the first strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing. They were joined by 40,000 transport workers and 115,000 employees in the postal service, who were striking to demand above-inflation pay rises.

It is unusual that it is the UK leading the way. Historically, the UK has had some of the lowest rates of strike action of the big European economies. Between 2010 and 2019, an average of 17.9 days a year were taken up by industrial action per 1,000 workers in the UK, compared with 17.3 in Germany and 127.6 in France, according to data from the European Trade Union Institute

If during a typical winter Brits would be reading about strikes paralysing France, for now the opposite is happening. This is provoking surprise across the Channel. “The UK’s industrial action is all the more impressive because the right to strike was seriously hindered by the ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s,” wrote Le Monde.

[See also: Rishi Sunak needs to offer striking workers a better deal]