Inflation in Europe and the United Kingdom is prompting a wave of labor action across the continent.
In April, Germany’s Berlin Brandenburg Airport canceled all departing flights because of a work stoppage among security workers. At the end of May, rail workers in the United Kingdom launched the first of three strikes to protest wages, forcing cuts in train service. France’s union for air traffic controllers went on strike in June, joining months of nationwide action against the country’s proposed retirement age increase.
This is only a sliver of the strike action across Europe and the United Kingdom in recent months, and of the walkouts expected across the continent. Many of these stoppages are happening in the transport and travel sectors — pilots and baggage handlers and train and public transit workers. That’s also why they’re getting a lot of attention: because these actions are disrupting some of those great post-pandemic Eurotrips this summer.
But these strikes are bigger than whether your flight to Malaga takes off as scheduled. Stubborn inflation in Europe and the United Kingdom is squeezing workforces, and those workers are demanding better wages and improved working conditions. This movement is not limited to transport-related unions. Frustrations are being felt across sectors, as evidenced by the strikes led by doctors and nurses and teachers in the United Kingdom.
“Workers still feel that they are losing out, because if inflation is higher than your wage increase, then you have a wage cut,” said Ronald Erne, professor of European integration and employment relations at the University College Dublin School of Business. “And so the strikes that we have across Europe, most of them are about renewal of wage agreements, of collective bargaining agreements.”
Last summer also saw strikes and stoppages, and some European countries tend to see these kinds of walkouts more frequently. Plus, workers around the world, and across industries, are making demands for better wages and employment terms amid inflation and shifting economies; after all, screenwriters in the US have been striking for more than a month, and a potentially massive UPS strike also looms.
This may not exactly be a historic summer of discontent, but some places are seeing a notable increase in labor action relative to recent years, as in the United Kingdom. Still, these stoppages are meaningful, a political expression of the frustration around current economic conditions.
And that expression is difficult to ignore, whether you’re planning a European getaway or not.
Just how widespread are these disruptions?
These work stoppages across Europe and the UK are happening in waves. Workers are going on strike for a few days, or one day, or even an afternoon. They are designed to be disruptive — flights canceled when pilots strike, medical appointments canceled when doctors in the UK walk out — and gain a lot of publicity.
This also minimizes the financial fallout for union workers, who might not get paid if they’re on prolonged strike. It may also help keep public opinion on their side, at least a little bit. In the UK, for example, public opinion largely supports strikes by doctors and nurses and other public sector workers, but that may shift if, rather than a few days of disruption, appointments got canceled for weeks and weeks.
A lot of these walkouts are voted on and announced far enough in advance to give people a chance to plan. As Euronews has reported, more strikes are expected in June and July, so travelers can prepare for, say, Swedish airport security strikes in July, and rolling public transit strikes in Italy.
And, again, these strikes are visible because the ones staging them are workers who are highly unionized but also have a lot of structural power in the economy — the ones who do the everyday life things people depend on: transportation, sanitation, mail delivery, health care. The strikes are in some ways a not-so-subtle reminder to employers and governments about how vital these jobs are to the economy writ large. The message: pay us fairly, or keep feeling the pain.
Inflation is stubbornly high in the EU and especially the UK, and workers don’t believe their wages are keeping up
The aftermath of the pandemic and the shocks of the Ukraine war have contributed to inflation around the world, including the EU and the UK. Many European economies, in particular, relied on cheap Russian gas, and Russia’s invasion prompted an energy crisis, forcing industries and households to prepare for shortages and higher prices for oil and gas and most everything else that requires energy inputs.
Some of those pressures have eased, but not entirely. In Europe, core inflation is at about 6 percent, declining but still high. And pockets of really high inflation remain, as with food staples; Europe’s food prices are about 12.5 percent higher this May than last year.
In the United Kingdom, inflation is stuck at about 8.7 percent, though it’s down from a peak last fall. Like the EU and the rest of the world, the UK is dealing with the post-Covid hangover and the disruptions from the Ukraine war, but unlike the EU and the rest of the world, it is dealing with some of the likely aftershocks of Brexit, and the economic and trade readjustments that came with it. (US inflation rose at a 4 percent rate in May, the lowest in two years, by way of comparison.)
Taken together, the economic picture is a tough one, especially for workers who see rising costs outpacing their wages, who see prices for basic goods taking a bigger chunk out of their paychecks. And that’s a huge reason for recent strikes.
“One major trigger for that has been the sudden increase in the inflation rate,” said Alex Bryson, a professor of quantitative social science at University College London Social Research Institute, referring to the United Kingdom. “Those public sector workers are facing an ever-increasing rate of decline in their real earnings unless they can claw some of it back.”
In the United Kingdom, workers have gone on strike across sectors, including junior doctors and nurses for Britain’s National Health Service. High inflation in the past year has really cut into workers’ real wages. The junior doctors, for example, want a commensurate pay increase — and protections against future pay declines. That, along with strikes in other sectors, has prompted some of the most intense labor activity in the UK since the Great Recession — although it doesn’t quite compare to some past labor unrest, as with the miners’ strikes in the mid-1980s.
Europe is also seeing its share of strikes, and that labor unrest across the continent also has slightly different triggers, some tied to national policies — like, again, those pension protest in France — and specific conditions or demands. But the problem of inflation is percolating around all these movements. This unrest is perhaps “reflecting the unwinding of a period of wage stagnation, where workers are now facing slightly increasing inflation and therefore deciding to try and dig their heels in if and where they can to try and stop further erosion in terms of conditions,” Bryson said.
What’s next for these strikes?
The cost-of-living crisis that’s creating this labor unrest is unlikely to completely dissipate this season, which means the continent will likely see more stoppages and strikes in the coming months.
The harder question to answer is how these movements are benefiting workers. “In Europe,” Erne said, “you need less to strike, you need less to get employers to make a compromise.”
Of course, that applies in different ways on the national level. France went ahead with its pension reform, after all, although strikes have always been kind of a thing in France. In Germany, aviation security workers who disrupted thousands of flights this spring reached a deal on pay, but German rail workers rejected a deal from the national rail provider in May. Pilots are on intermittent strikes over pay with the Spanish airline Air Europa. Italy’s public transit workers have planned localized strikes throughout the country. But Sweden’s rail workers called off a strike in May after last-minute negotiations.
The UK is a bit more of a complicated picture, in part because it is a bit less labor-friendly than many EU countries. Right now, the government is debating anti-strike laws, which would set minimum service requirements and which critics say undermine the rights of workers. Still, there’s been some successes — workers at Heathrow Airport postponed a strike after positive negotiations. The government proposed a deal for NHS nurses, though some unions rejected it — and it’s unclear right now if there will be enough support for continued collective action. Of course, for nurses and doctors and other public sector workers whose pay is set by the government, these negotiations are a bit more complicated. But those hurdles, in some ways, are why these groups keep pushing.
“I think they are in it for the long haul, because they think if they don’t get a decent settlement now, they’ll have lost their chance,” Bryson said. “There is something of a brinksmanship thing going on here. The question is who is going to blink first.”