European Welfare State Model under Strain as Labor Tensions Rise

In Greece, where the government is striving to avert national bankruptcy, much of the country has gone on strike against government austerity measures. Public- and private-sector unions have called strikes to protest a range of measures aimed at reducing Greece’s budget deficit.

In Spain, where a 20 percent jobless rate and rising debt have prompted worries about a Greek-style budget crisis, workers in cities across the country have started protesting against the government’s proposal to raise the retirement age by two years to 67.

In France, an air traffic controllers strike grounded hundreds of flights in Paris, one of the busiest air travel hubs in Europe. French unions are protesting the planned consolidation of air traffic control networks in Europe. The planned merger could see French air traffic controllers, who are currently among the best paid in Europe, lose their generous perks, which include 30 weeks of vacation per year. (French air traffic controllers are required to work only 100 days a year.)

Also in France, a massive strike has hobbled operations at Total SA, Europe’s largest oil refiner. Employees are protesting a potential plan to close an oil refining plant in northern France; the plant at Flanders has been idle for more than six months due to a drop in demand for refined oil products. This being France, the government has intervened in the dispute by taking sides with the workers. The Industry Ministry has warned Total that it is “out of the question to close the Flanders refinery. Nor of course, to close any other one in France.”

(Meanwhile, France Telecom, the main telecommunications company in France, has replaced its CEO following a wave of suicides at the company. Nearly 40 France Telecom employees have committed suicide since January 2008. Labor unions blame the suicides on stress caused by the former CEO’s attempts to restructure and modernize France Telecom to meet intensifying competition from abroad.)

In Germany, some 4,000 pilots began what was meant to be a four-day strike at Lufthansa, Germany’s flagship carrier. The pilots are worried the company might try to cut staff costs by shifting jobs to its foreign subsidiaries, where wage costs are lower. Unions representing 16,000 Lufthansa cabin crew are threatening to join the pilots if the company fails to reach an agreement with them as well. Lufthansa pilots agreed to suspend their strike for two weeks after a court ruled against a claim by the union that the airline was obliged to apply German labor law to all of its employees, even those working outside Germany.

In Britain, the union representing 12,000 stewards and stewardesses for British Airways has threatened to strike. The dispute revolves around a decision by British Airways to reduce the number of staff on long-haul flights and to introduce a two-year pay freeze. The changes are forcing the cabin service directors (the most senior crew) to no longer just oversee the staff, but to start serving meals and drinks as well. In a statement, the union says British Airways cabin crew feel a “deep sense of grievance” about their treatment by their employer.

Also in Britain, more than 250,000 public sector workers are set to strike over what their union says are “macho” government cuts to redundancy payments. The government says the changes, which place caps on pay-offs to those laid off or taking voluntary redundancy, will save £500 million in taxpayer money. The union says the cuts are illegal and are threatening a series of rolling strikes throughout March and April, just weeks before the expected date of the general election, if the government refuses to back down.

In Italy, workers at the troubled car giant Fiat went on strike to protest the planned shutdown at the end of 2011 of an assembly plant in Sicily. (Even the Pope weighed in on the matter.) On February 22, Fiat abruptly halted production at all of its Italian plants for two weeks because of a fall in new car orders. The measure places 30,000 workers on unemployment benefits.

In Finland, dockworkers staged a strike following the breakdown of contract negotiations. The dockworkers union has threatened to call an open-ended strike, which would choke off most of the country’s exports.

In Belgium, workers at the Carrefour supermarket chain are bracing for a nationwide strike over plans to cut 1,672 jobs in Belgium and close 21 stores in the country by the end of June. Carrefour says its operations in Belgium are “structurally loss-making.”

In Poland, nurses are threatening a nationwide strike unless the Health Ministry can reach a deal on raises. Currently, nurses are on strike at four hospitals in southern Poland. Some have even begun a hunger strike while others have gathered outside the Health Ministry, playing revolutionary ballads from Poland’s communist era.

In Portugal, unions representing Portugal’s public-sector workers are preparing a national strike to challenge a wage freeze that the government says is necessary to cut a burgeoning budget deficit.

In Ireland, public sector workers have been staging a go-slow since February 1 in protest against pay cuts in last December’s austerity budget.

In the Czech Republic, transport workers are threatening to halt trains and buses to support their demand for a lower tax on benefits.