Something of a Quiet Revolution

Industrial Action

Contestation has most of the time occurred at the local, regional and national level where unions are traditionally strong in the public sector and have been the typical opponents of EU liberalization policies. Such mobilization has sometimes been seen as the defence of vested corporat- ist interests (working conditions sometimes perceived as privileges) at the expense of users and consumers (Hermann et al. 2012). Most of the time, contention emerged when liberalization had already been decided at the EU level long beforehand, and then later translated into restructuring plans and/or privatization on the ground. While industrial action and contestation related to pay or restructuration, for instance, are constant phenomena, contestation does not systematically or explicitly target EU policies as their cause.

In the transport sector, adaptation to the liberalization and deregulation of air transport brought about intense—yet fragmented—industrial action among workers of historically national airlines. In many countries, unions resisted the degradation of working conditions (France, Italy, Ireland, Portugal), while in others (Germany), unions and management worked together towards a competitive adaptation in the context of the new European Single Market (Warhurst 1995). Eventually, scholars found that ‘although there is evidence of “functional convergence” (...) under the pressure of regime competition, most notably in terms of policies designed to maximize labour use, minimize labour costs and enhance service quality (...), the response of labour and the strategic use of institutional and organizational capacities at specific moments during the process of economic restructuring have influenced both the process and outcomes of liberalization and (re)regulation’ (Martinez Lucio et al. 2001, pp. 51-52), as illustrated by unions’ mobilization in the restructuring of British Airways and the Spanish Iberia.

The same holds in the telecommunications sector. In Germany, due to strong internal coordination and relatively high levels of membership Ver.di could to a certain extent shape the process of outsourcing the activities of Deutsche Telekom to T-Mobile (Doellgast 2008). However, a comparative study shows that, while decentralized bargaining combined with labour fragmentation led to an erosion of German unions’ influence, ‘French unions were more successful in establishing encompassing bargaining structures and reducing pressures for pay differentiation, due to state support for the mandatory extension of agreements and unions’ strategic focus on centralizing bargaining’ (Doellgast et al. 2009, p. 373). Orange, successor to the monopolist France Telecom, was privatized in 2004 and now has market shares in several European markets. In other countries, the marketization of telecommunications triggered larger public contestation. The privatization of Portugal Telecom in 1997 and the related restructuring (including redundancies, outsourcing, increased pressure for heightened productivity, etc.) led to collective action, targeting the government through demonstrations and marches to Lisbon’s stock exchange, the symbol of the new owner of the company (Eurofound 1997a).

Following the first energy package of1996-1998 and the second package in 2003, the energy sector (gas and electricity) underwent a similar process of restructuring throughout the continent. While unions were involved in discussing the contours of this process, it often gave rise to contestation. In Sweden, the plan announced by the energy group Vattenfall to dismiss 1000 of its 8000 employees by 2000 caused major opposition among the unions, although the main sectoral union SEKO had actually negotiated the conditions of the plan with the company (Eurofound 1998). Meanwhile, Vattenfall has become a main European player with significant market shares in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the UK. In Central and Eastern Europe, the privatization of the formerly publicly owned assets under Communism has similarly led to the privatization of public utilities through sales to foreign—mainly West European—companies. In Poland, for example, the liberalization and privatization agendas have been continuously contentious (Eurofound 2006, 2007). In successive governments, the Ministry of Finance proceeded with the restructuring of the sector in order to increase its value before selling shares of the new companies to foreign investors. Meanwhile, reactions from trade unions ranged from negotiation to protest. In the mid-2000s, the pro-market government’s plans for privatization were contested and temporarily stalled. At the same time, the European Commission was taking legal action against Poland due to the country’s failure to implement EU law related to the liberalization of energy markets (idem). In February 2011, the union SNZZ Solidarity organized a protest action during the official visit of the French President Sarkozy in Poland to protest against the takeover of 51 % of the company Enea by the French provider Electricite de France (EdF). In 2004, a series of protest actions culminating in a national day of action in Sofia were led by the Bulgarian unions to protest against the government’s policy for restructuring the energy sector in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU (Eurofound 2004).

In the postal sector, while the adoption of EU liberalization directives (1997 and 2003) has not been very visible politically, the delayed effects brought about by government or corporate plans in response to a changing environment triggered strong mobilization among workers. In Germany, where the government had undertaken early steps towards liberalization in the early 1990s, the transposition of the First EU Postal Directive in 1998 sparked contestation—with 50 cities being disrupted by short strike actions and about 23,000 postal workers marching in the streets of Bonn (Eurofound 1997b). Yet, the following progressive privatization—starting in 2000 and reaching majority private ownership in 2005—did not trigger major conflicts. In France, the number of strike days has steadily increased since 1997 with the level of conflict reaching a peak in 2010.1 In 2009 and 2010, the level of social conflict skyrocketed as a response to the decision of the French government to change the legal status of La Poste from a public enterprise to an undertaking under private law. This decision was made in response to the adoption of the Third Postal Directive in 2009 and aimed at adapting the French provider to the conditions of the foreseen full liberalization. Although 100 % of the company’s capital was to remain in state ownership, the change in legal status was seen as paving the way for future privatization. In Belgium, Bpost staged a major strike in February 2011 in response to a new strategic plan aiming at a deep reorganization of the firm in order to [1]

cope with a now very competitive environment against the background of sinking levels of mail activity. The level of conflict should nevertheless not be overemphasized. In his survey of the marketization of postal sectors in several European countries, Brandt (2007) finds that the process has been conflictual only in Belgium, and rather consensual in Austria, Germany, Poland, Sweden and the UK.

There would be hundreds of examples ofhow unions at the regional or national level have reacted to the indirect and often delayed consequences of ongoing marketization policies connected with the integration of the European Single Market throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. Occasional protest and industrial action aiming at preserving levels of employment and favourable pay and working conditions alternated with resignation. In some countries or sectors, consensual politics paved the way for strategic partnerships with management to shape companies’ competitiveness in the European market. In any event, unions have had to acknowledge that, in the medium and long run, liberalization and privatization were inevitable; not only because it allowed states to raise revenue but also because market integration constituted a new inescapable environment in the context of European integration. This occasionally paved the way for mobilization beyond national borders in order to address policy issues arising at the EU level of governance.

  • [1] Cf La Poste, La Poste : rapportsocial annuel, cf., date accessed 24 June 06 2015.
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