Kelvinwright's Blog

postmodern thoughts

Strikes in the 21st century

Last year I was in Switzerland, speaking to the Director of a firm of Headhunters. He had noticed various strikes in Spain and I asked, “How often do you have strikes in Switzerland?” He answered, “I think we had one once, but we tend not to strike here.” Earlier this year the Swiss voted AGAINST a plan to increase the number of statutory week’s holiday to 6. I looked to the situations in the UK and in Spain, and wondered how people in these two countries would have voted.

Iberia is in the midst of a series of strikes, that the pilots explain as a revolt against the company’s plans to operate a low cost carrier. The pilots lose their earnings for each of the strikes, the company loses many days of flights, and with it, a vast sum of money, the customers lose days of vacation or business appointments, as well as money in some cases for days not taken in their hotels, and the shareholders lose out too. Customers also naturally lose confidence in the company. I for one no longer fly Iberia, for fear of a strike that may ruin my vacation. In short, does anybody win with a strike?

Last month Spain had a general strike that was not as well attended as the unions would like to believe, but certainly did enough damage to an already fragile and fractured economy and country.

In 2010 I suffered many times due to strikes. I was caught up in the illegal walkout of Spanish air traffic controllers, missing two days of a vacation to New York. I read the stories of the millions of affected passengers: the father who had saved for three years to take his children to Disneyland Paris; the daughter who was flying home to see her dying mother in South America, and was told that she wouldn’t be able to leave for more than a week, not knowing if she would hold her mother’s hand ever again.

Earlier in 2010 I was due to attend a final series of interviews in Switzerland; this time the French air traffic controllers suddenly went on strike. I arrived nine hours late to Switzerland, and missed all of the interviews. The people in the US told me to get a different flight; I told them, “nothing in leaving”. They couldn’t understand it, and neither could I.

Unions were formed in the early part of the 19th century to protect and improve workers’ living standards. Can any of today’s Unions honestly say that their worker’s living standards are sub-standard, as those of the 19th century were? Can Iberia’s pilots, or the French or Spanish Air Traffic Controllers compare their conditions with those of 19th century workers? Compare this to Switzerland:  for many decades now the country has enjoyed relative stability in labour relations, with most conflicts being resolved amicably, thanks in large to a “labour accord” going back to 1937, when trade unions and employers in the metalworking industry signed an agreement to regulate the conduct of disputes. The unions agree not to use strikes as a weapon, whilst employers agree to accept arbitration to resolve wage claims.

Europe is not so much in a summer of discontent as I wrote two years ago; it is fast moving into a decade of discontent. Until the Unions and their representatives stop striking, until they become flexible and move into the 21st century, and until people from all sides come together, prepared to discuss, to look for areas of common ground and agreement, rather than open further old arguments and seek to protect benefits systems based on the past, rather than sustainability based on a viable and affordable future, until this happens, the discontent will continue. Maybe we could all learn something from the Swiss model.

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May 1, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. When studying my master’s degree back in 2005, one of my professors who was an advisor to the union of pilots summarised: “We all fight to have something to eat. Some fight for their bread, the ones I represent fight for their caviar”.

    Comment by Diego | May 1, 2012 | Reply

  2. Strikes too go back to the 19th century and even earlier; manual workers used strikes as a legitimate protest, to remind rapacious employers that without their work there was no business to be done.

    But when we’re talking about new employment legislation in 2012, going on strike only hurts your company, your workmates, and as you rightly say, customers; i.e. all the wrong people. It doesn’t cause a change of government or policies. Protesting is fine, but it has to be the right sort of protest, properly focused and with clear ideas about what the desired outcome is. Why don’t the protestors hold large-scale demonstrations in Puerta del Sol at weekends? As some newspaper front covers rightly explained on Friday 4th May, more people took to the streets of Madrid because of some football nonsense, than for the general strike one month before.

    A large part of the problem is that Spanish society, sedated by regular fixes of football and other lank-brained televised drivel, doesn’t value its democracy enough to take its political emotions beyond these illogical small-scale tantrums. Let’s not forget that in Spain the 36-year dictatorship only ended because the dictator died, otherwise it would have lasted even longer. Unlike Italy, Greece or Portugal, democracy was not fought for by the people. Democracy was imposed upon the Spanish populace, whether they wanted it or not, by the political remains of that dictatorship. And so pervasive political apathy and indifference has caused a social situation in which many are genuinely suffering hardship, but few have any idea what to do about it, other than getting together and paying grown men with names like “Messy” and “Caca” millions of euros for playing an exceptionally simple-minded game, and hoping that for 90 minutes their troubles will disappear. Hardly anyone showed up to the May Day parade. Apparently because it was a bit cold and cloudy.

    In this context, going on strike is about as productive and intelligent as nailing jelly to the ceiling. I also boycott Iberia, but mainly because for the last 25 years I have found them to be unrelentingly rude, inconsiderate, overpriced, unreliable and uncomfortable, and thankfully these days I usually have a choice. But I blame the management, not the staff. The management has been as indifferent and apathetic as everyone else. “Así nos va”.

    Comment by simonferdinand | May 5, 2012 | Reply

  3. Diego – a lovely description there, and perfect to describe the difference between what unions originally fought for, and what some unions fight for now (the difference between bread and caviar)

    Comment by Kelvin Wright | May 5, 2012 | Reply

  4. Simonferdinand – excellent reply. I have also observed in Spain what you note here. The masses are more passionate about a game of football played by overpaid superstars who can work at most 2 x 90 minute matches per week, than they are about what is really important in life. People turned out in the tens of thousands in the pouring rain and bitter cold to see Real Madrid’s footballers go throough the streets, but as you say, the unions and the ultra left explained the low turnout on May 1st to the cold – priorities. I don’t personally believe a mass protest in Puerta de Sol at weekends would achieve much, because the people that turn up tend to cause the massive problems and this impacts upon local businesses – they camp there for several weeks, leaving behind them a mess that costs even more money to clean up, and the in the end the idea of protest is lost to an illegal camp and the idea that, “we’re doing something that we shouldn’t be doing”.

    As you say though, going on strike, especially for the reasons chosen nowadays, is about as useful and fruitful as nailing jelly to the ceiling. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s not strikes

    Comment by Kelvin Wright | May 5, 2012 | Reply


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