May 28, 2009 / 1:24 PM / 10 years ago

FACTBOX-Trade union activity in Western Europe

May 28 (Reuters) - Trade unions across Europe have become increasingly vocal during the global financial crisis, but membership is falling across the region and some complain of diminishing influence with employers and government.

Below are facts on union activity across Western Europe.

For a factbox on union activity in emerging Europe, click here [ID:nLR983714]

For a factbox on key African and Middle Eastern markets, click here [ID:nLS652792]


— The reputation and influence of Austria’s trade union federation OeGB took a blow in 2005 and 2006 when a scandal over hidden losses at its bank BAWAG was unveiled and top union officials admitted they were part of the cover-up. Membership decline accelerated briefly but has stabilised since at around 1.2 million people.

— Relations between the trade unions and their main political affiliate, the Social Democrats, had soured because of the bank scandal, but have warmed again since. The minister of labour and social affairs, Rudolf Hundstorfer, was head of the OeGB until his appointment. Influence of the hard-right Freedom Party in labour institutions is rising at the expense of the Social Democrats, however.

— While conservative governments between 2000 and 2006 have sidelined trade unions, there were no serious attempts to curtail formal legal rights of employees or trade unions and none are under way now.

— The big traditional Mayday marches in Vienna attract around 100,000 people each year. On May 13, 25,000 demonstrated for wage hikes in Vienna.

— Austria’s unemployment rate rose to 7.1 percent in April from 5.7 percent a year ago. [ID:nL4550324]


— The three major Belgian trade unions (FGTB, ACV, CGSLB) staged a protest on March 9 in Brussels, which drew some 5,000 demonstrators. A demonstration on May 15, staged by the umbrella European Trade Union Confederation, drew some 40,000 workers from across the EU.

— Unions say they fear pledges from lawmakers to maintain social programs and the next ambitious recovery measures might not be kept after elections in June.

— Union officials say they are maintaining their traditional close cooperation with government but that influence on business seems to be slipping, with firms quicker to go to court to break up strikes instead of negotiating with workers.


— Unions have failed to regain the industrial stranglehold they enjoyed in the 1970s, their power smashed by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Membership peaked at 13 million in 1979 but fell to 7.2 million in 2008, down 1.5 percent on the previous year.

— Nevertheless, the Labour government of Gordon Brown became embroiled in a number of public sector pay disputes last year after it acted to put a lid on pay amid concerns about rising inflation. The police, teachers, civil servants and even the Coastguard Agency, who had never taken strike action before, were in disputes with the government before the unions, traditionally big Labour funders, agreed to 3-year pay deals.

— The recession and rising unemployment has seen union focus shift to concern about the use of foreign contractors on major construction projects. Workers at oil refineries, including the Total-owned (TOTF.PA) Lindsey refinery in eastern England, took unofficial industrial action, arguing British jobs should be for British workers.

— Unemployment saw its largest quarterly rise since 1981 in the first quarter, hitting 7.1 percent.


— French unions have denounced the government’s handling of the economic crisis, becoming in the process a more effective opposition to President Nicolas Sarkozy than the mainstream Socialist party.

— In a rare display of unity, France’s eight unions have joined forces to stage three days of nationwide protests this year, bringing up to 3 million people onto the streets to demand new policies, especially more help for consumers and more protection against job losses.

— The facade of unity is starting to crack, with militant unions demanding more frequent protests and strike action, which the moderates are refusing to countenance. It does not seem that ordinary workers have the appetite for a showdown with the government.

— Union membership in France is low, at about 8 percent of the workforce. But the unions have a powerful grip on some industries and public services and Sarkozy has regularly sought to engage them in reform consultations, hoping to prevent a full blown showdown. This policy appears to be paying off, for now.

— Trade union members have been among those involved in a wave of "bossnapping", taking managers hostage at the firms making redundancies, but it is not union policy. Asked about such actions, union leaders tend to condone them, saying desperate situations give rise to desperate measures.

— More than 440,000 jobs have disappeared in mainland France over the past year, with the March figures showing a 35.8 percent year-on-year surge in the number of jobseekers under the age of 25. The statistics office estimates the unemployment rate should average of 8.8 percent in the current quarter [ID:nLR739225].


— Greece’s powerful private sector (GSEE) and public sector (ADEDY) unions represent about half of Greece’s 5-million-strong-workforce. They oppose the conservative government’s handling of the financial crisis, saying its economic measures only burden the poor.

— Both unions have stepped up protests since the police killing of a teenager in December triggered the country’s worst riots in decades, fuelled by anger at economic scandals, pension reforms and high youth unemployment. Workers fear job and salary cuts as the economic downturn hurts the country’s 250 billion euro economy, seen stalling after years of robust growth.

— Weekly demonstrations have put pressure on the conservative government, which trails the main socialist opposition by up to 5 percentage points in opinion polls. The government has launched a 28 billion euro bank support package but fiscal troubles and a huge debt have prevented any substantial measures for the poor.

— Unemployment jumped to 9.4 percent in January, with the jobless rate in the 15-24 age group climbing to 25 percent.


— After spiking to almost 12 million after Germany’s 1990 reunification, membership of the main unions fell to 6.4 million in 2008, according to the DGB umbrella group. Separate state employee unions have around 1 million members.

— Compared to France, wage negotiations usually succeed without strikes but there are signs that the use of strikes as a successful negotiating tactic is gaining ground. One study from the Hans Boeckler Foundation shows that from 2000-2004, two or three broad, sector-wide strikes a year were considered significant victories for the unions against four in 2005, eight in 2006 and nine in 2007.

— The foundation says 1.6 million people went on strike in 2008, a million more than the previous year. But the number of workdays lost to strikes fell around 25 percent.

— Despite years of effort, unions have failed to force a national minimum wage.

— DGB says some 500,000 demonstrated across Germany on May 1, up from 410,000 last year due to the financial crisis.

— German unemployment rose for the sixth-month running in April to hit its highest since late 2007 in April, producing an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent

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