Analysis: Workers are seizing their moment to shift the balance of power

  • Airline disputes show potential for unrest in pandemic era
  • But industrial action in long-term decline in major economies
  • Unions get more visibility, see new ways to organize

July 26 (Reuters) – It should surprise no one that the first major show of worker power in the pandemic era has been in air travel, according to Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation.

“The aviation sector around the world is a prime example of bad employment policy,” Burrow said of an industry whose high-volume, low-cost model has long been criticized for poor conditions. work and the erosion of labor rights.

“People vote with their feet,” she told Reuters of the reluctance of many aviation workers to return after layoffs or furloughs, a trend that – alongside wage strikes – has caused havoc at European airports last month.

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The bigger question now is whether other workers will follow and reverse a decades-old decline in industrial action that has seen employers gain the upper hand in labor relations.

The conditions seem ripe for trouble.

COVID-19 has exacerbated economic inequality, with a World Bank study last year showing incomes were hit hardest among the poorest fifth of the world’s population.

Transport, retail and healthcare workers – though hailed by governments for their bravery – held low-paying jobs in often dangerous conditions as millions of white-collar workers worked from home.

Adding to the impact of a decade of weak wage growth in rich countries after the 2008/09 recession, double-digit inflation is now worsening the plight of the working poor.

Yet, while these grievances are real, unions have lost much of the influence they had before the 1980s push for economic liberalization.


Union density – the number of union members as a proportion of employees – has more than halved in developed economies, from 33.9% in 1970 to just 15.8% in 2019, according to figures from the Organization of economic cooperation and development.

Statistics from the US Bureau of Labor show a corresponding drop over the same period in both the number of serious work stoppages in the US and the total number of days lost due to industrial action.

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Since its “lost decade” in the 1990s, Japan has rarely seen labor unrest, with union leaders prioritizing job security over wage increases. Other Western economies like Australia have passed laws to make strikes tougher.

In Europe, unions can still exercise their power despite declining membership. But data compiled by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) shows a similar decline in work-related disruptions as trends of outsourcing to the gig economy have emerged.

“There may be grievances in society and in the workplace, but this social injustice needs to be organized and channeled,” said Kurt Vandaele, Senior Researcher at ETUI.

“Cracked workplaces could make it more difficult to take industrial action because in the same place you have different categories of workers, different companies. This increases coordination costs for unions.”

A 2021 report by the International Labor Organization warned unions they risked being marginalized if they failed to serve those in precarious or informal employment – ​​notably young workers, for whom secure contracts are rare .


There is evidence that unions take this into account.

Digital organizing is growing – from using Zoom calls to discuss worker grievances, to using an employer’s intranet site to broadcast union messages.

Some union leaders, such as Christian Smalls, whose activism led to Amazon’s (AMZN.O) first union warehouse in Staten Island in March, or British transport union boss Mick Lynch, have even become stars of the social media.

Encouraged by the union-friendly Biden administration, US petitions for a vote to see if employees want to unionize rose 58% from a year earlier to 1,892 in the nine months to June 30, said the National Labor Relations Board this month.

Among them are workers at Starbucks and Chipotle, while tech employees are increasingly vocal on pay and conditions. Yet current U.S. law still gives employers the option to avoid offering contracts with legally binding terms, labor experts say.

“In this country, going from no union to having a union contract is an incredibly difficult journey,” said Lane Windham, associate director of the Georgetown University labor center.

Germany’s biggest union, IG Metall, is pushing for an 8% pay rise this year, a marked change from its recent focus on job security. In Britain, where airport staff, lawyers, teachers, doctors, postal, telecommunications and railway workers are considering action, the Trades Union Congress cites increased traffic on its “find a union” web page. Read more

It remains to be seen what these trends correspond to. But governments realize this.

South Korea this month condemned a strike at Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering 042660.KS (DSME) as “illegal” and warned against intervening to break the bid of around 100 contractors to to obtain a salary increase of 30%. Read more

In contrast, Germany’s centre-left coalition, fearing that a looming energy crisis could trigger social unrest, has opened consultations with employers and unions on ways to protect households from rising inflation.

“The goal is to attract as many stakeholders as possible so that they can tell people that they are doing everything they can,” said political analyst Gero Neugebauer.

ETUI’s Vandaele said he was watching for a potential “demonstration effect” where recent transport strikes inspire industrial action by the public sector or healthcare workers.

Some governments and central banks are calling for wage moderation, warning that overly generous wage rounds could trigger a wage-price spiral pushing inflation even higher.

But with wage gains lagging the headline inflation rate driven by food and energy prices, that argument carries little weight with union leaders.

“The risk is not inflationary pressures on wages,” said CSI’s Burrow. “The fact that workers cannot participate in the economy to the extent they want, even for basics like energy and food in some cases, is fueling a collapse of the economy.”

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Written by Mark John; Additional reporting by Doyinsola Oladipo and Dan Burns in Washington; Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Wayne Cole in Sydney, Joe Bavier in Johannesburg and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Catherine Evans

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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