Strikes in Europe: Still a Decade of Decline or the Eve of a New Upsurge?

By Bordogna, Lorenzo | Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Strikes in Europe: Still a Decade of Decline or the Eve of a New Upsurge?


Bordogna, Lorenzo, Indian Journal of Industrial Relations


Introduction

Still afflicted by the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s, at the end of the first decade of the new millennium Europe is apparently the theatre, after more than two decades of labour quiescence, of a resurgence of various forms of industrial unrest, from seizure or kidnapping of company managers to street riots and other episodes of violence. Unlike the kidnap of factory managers of multinational companies carried out in several countries by criminal gangs for extortion purposes, to obtain a monetary ransom, what is peculiar of recent episodes in some European countries-mostly in, but not limited to France- is that these actions are practiced by employees and trade unions to protest lay-offs, renegotiate redundancy pay, and in general avoid or contrast plant closings or their relocation in areas with lower wage and welfare standards (boss-napping is the newly-coined word). Just to mention few cases in the first months of 2009, the list includes the holding company PPR SA in Paris, where at the end of March 2009 the head of the company was surrounded for one hour in a taxi in Paris in a protest against a plan to lay-off 1,200 workers at the department stores Fnac and Confora; a Caterpillar factory in Grenoble, where four managers were held as hostages in their offices for one night, in protest against the company's plan to cut more than 700 jobs (25 percent of Caterpillar's French workforce); the 3M Co.'s factory in Pithiviers and the Sony Corp.'s Pontonx-sur-l'Adour, both in similar episodes; two managers at the Lisle-based American Molex Inc. factory. Examples could continue, and a poll of French citizens carried out in Spring 2009 for a Paris newspaper showed that 45 percent believed that sequestering a boss is "acceptable" during protests over lay-offs or other company action. Without resorting to such extreme solutions, other forms of individual or small group protest have been utilized as well, like the occupation of plants and factories, or the self-segregation for several days of one or few workers on the top of a freight elevator cabin (cases in Italy could be mentioned). Finally, a number of cases of suicide of employees are also reported on the press. Although obviously different in nature and in their social meaning from the above-mentioned manifestations of industrial unrest, they testify as well the drama of actual or prospective unemployment and, more generally, the work-related stress connected with industrial restructuring. France again seems to be particularly hit by this phenomenon (1), but cases are registered in Italy and in other European countries too.

But what about strikes, which are undoubtedly the principal and most straightforward expression of industrial unrest (Hyman 1972, Cella 1979)? At the beginning of the 1990s two important comparative studies (Shalev 1992, Edwards & Hyman 1994) analysed the evolution of collective labour disputes in Europe after the great strike wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They provided contrasting interpretations. Shalev tended to emphasise a rather general decline in strike activity during the 1980s, although with qualifications, as well as a marked shift of industrial conflict from manufacturing to the services sector. Edwards and Hyman (1994) were much more cautious on both counts, considering the decline in strike levels to be a temporary downswing, not a secular trend, and the 'tertiarization' of industrial conflict to be a phenomenon possibly affecting a limited number of countries but not a general feature. These divergent conclusions, as it is not unusual in the history of the study of industrial conflict (2), were partly due also to the use of different indicators of strike activity and the adoption of different time-periods in the analysis (3). In order to avoid these pitfalls, a subsequent study, about ten years later (Bordogna & Cella 2002), tried to assess the conclusions of the above-cited analyses both utilizing the three standard measures for levels of industrial conflict, weighted for total employment, and considering all five of the decades since the Second World War, in annual averages over five-year and ten-year periods. …

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