Ed Balls grills Kevin Courtney over teachers’ strikes
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Industrial action this week has seen teachers out in London and metro operators above-ground in Paris – but not quite for the same reason. Strikes have become near-daily occurrences in both the UK and France of late, but longstanding traditions aren’t about to be reversed anytime soon. Express.co.uk crunches the numbers of strike disruptions across Europe to see whose workers are the feistiest of all.
Over the past weeks and months, workers in the UK and France – predominately from the public sector – have been walking out and protesting en masse.
On both sides of the Channel, the cost-of-living crisis has been hitting households hard. Prices in the UK finished the year 10.1 percent higher, doing so by seven percent in France.
In both countries, wage growth has lagged far behind, leaving employees in a variety of sectors facing a pay cut in real terms. NHS nurses, ambulance crews, train drivers and postal workers all staged multiple bouts of strikes in the UK this winter.
This week has seen teachers and junior doctors join the fray – the British Medical Association (BMA) demanding pay restoration to the tune of a 35.3 percent raise to make up for 15 years of real-terms losses.
Throughout 2022, workers in France did much of the same. Air France hostesses, SNCF train staff and high school teachers all took part in industrial action. But the French now have something even more enervating to demonstrate against.
This week President Emmanuel Macron’s government used controversial “article 49.3” to bypass the divided parliament and forcibly raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Thousands took to the streets of Paris and other major cities within 24 hours, brandishing trade union flags and singing the Marseillaise. Protesters clashed with police as darkness fell on Thursday evening, with over a hundred arrests reported by the end of the day.
France’s second-largest union, the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) quickly called for a general strike to be held on Thursday, March 23, following the government’s “unjust” act of “democratic denial”.
With every wave of industrial action that sweeps over the country, the French media revisit the question of whether they truly are the “strike world champions”.
Data released by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) can now provide an answer. In the 20 years between 2000 and 2019, in the UK there were an average of 23.1 working days lost to industrial action per 1,000 employees per year.
This ratio allows for comparison between countries whose workforces differ greatly in size. The comparable figure for France was 127.6.
Walkouts over pay and conditions are an integral part of working culture across Europe. The French may be just over five times more inclined to go on strike than the Brits, but others on the Continent go even further.
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The rankings have evolved slightly over the past two decades. Between 2000 and 2009, Spain led the pack with an average of 153 days lost.
These reached their peak with 365 days forfeited per 1,000 workers in 2002 – the year unions called on 15 million people to stay home in reaction to unemployment law reforms passed by Madrid. France came second in Europe with 127 days lost during this period.
Between 2010 and 2019, walkouts hit Cyprus hardest, with 275 days lost on average. A banking collapse in the country in 2013 saw the rate reach a record-high 2024 days lost – equivalent to every employee in the country striking for at least two days.
France also came second in this latter period, with 128 days lost.
Overall, fewer and fewer working days are lost to strikes over time. OECD data going back 30 years show a clear trend: between the Nineties and the 2008 to 2018 period, days lost to strikes in Spain fell from 309 to 76, in Denmark from 169 to 105, and in Turkey from 223 to 10.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of striking workers in the UK fell to its lowest level since the 1890s. This figure chimes with declining trade union membership numbers, which stood at 6.4 million in 2021 – less than half the 13 million peak in 1979.
The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) keeps track of the share of employees whose pay and working conditions are governed by a collective agreement in each country.
European countries tend to have the highest coverage rates in the world, with France notably second with 98 percent at the latest count. The UK’s 27 percent put it 50th out of the 99 nations studied.
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