Why the Strikes in Europe Deserve More Attention


Striking workers and their actions deserve more attention from the United States

On Nov 10, 2022, public transport workers across France went on strike; a common theme in the past few months in France, and across Europe, due to a cost of living crisis across the region. It followed a strike on Oct 18, where as many as 107,000 workers across France participated in a strike called by several unions and left-wing parties, according to Reuters. Activists marched through Paris to protest the government’s inaction on low wages and the bill proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron to raise the pension age, pushing workers’ retirement age to 65 years. France is not the only European Union (EU) country to have workers show action: Greek and Belgian workers also displayed strikes on Nov 9, protesting decreasing purchasing power caused by high inflation and stagnant wages. 

Despite such a high number of demonstrators, the protests are gaining very little attention here in the United States; Only six articles have been published about the strikes mentioned above between CNN, Fox, and NBC combined. Strikes of such magnitude should spark more conversation in the United States, especially with the disruption caused by lack of transport seen in France, and the clashes between police and protesters seen in Athens, Paris, and Brussels. With the United States experiencing a similar cost-of-living crisis, police brutality and mass incarceration, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, and threats to abortion rights, Americans should look to striking workers abroad for inspiration and support in the face of disappointing government action. 

Workers in France have not only protested low wages and high inflation, they are also facing possible government pension reforms from the government from 62 years to 65 (In France, all workers receive a state pension, and must work until 62 to get a full pension). On Nov 10, workers went on strike across the country, with over 4,000 demonstrators in Paris and 60,000 nationwide, according to Radio France Internationale (RFI). “Employers and the government only give to demonstrations and strikes. Talks and meetings produce no results,” CGT union member Philippe Gaillard told Reuters. 

The strikes in France could continue if the demands from unions are not met. “Today is a big warning shot and we hope they will hear it,” CGT union secretary Bertrand Hammache told RFI. “I say it clearly: if our demands are not met, the movement will last much longer than today,” union boss Arole Lamasse told BFMTV. 

Belgium has been among the hardest-hit countries from inflation, with gas and electricity prices rising 130% and 85%, respectively, in the past year. The Belgian unions’ Nov 9 general strike canceled 60% of flights and shut down all but one metro line in Brussels, according to Associated Press (AP), and heavily affected buses and trams in the city. “We are really living in a crisis situation. The crises are adding up and now it’s really a shock. I really think that men and women, even those with higher incomes, are really experiencing the current situation of energy bills as a shock,” Eric Buyssens, Political Director of FGTB Brussels, told Euronews. 

Another hard-hit country is Greece, with its 12% inflation rate highest among the Eurozone (countries that have adopted the Euro as currency). On Nov 9, workers began a 24-hour general strike and marched in Athens, where two people were arrested, and in Thessaloniki, where eight were arrested, and were met with tear gas and stun grenades from police, according to AP. “We’re demanding an appropriate increase in salaries as our wages have been hit radically by such high energy prices and living costs,” Dimitris Georgiou, a telecoms employee and striker, told the Guardian. The strikes and demonstrations caused ferry and public transport stoppages and grounded flights, according to Reuters, as air traffic controllers also walked out. 

All of these protests and walkouts are gaining traction and becoming more and more common in Europe. Hungarian, Norwegian, Spanish, Swiss, and UK workers all held demonstrations recently in the face of inflation. Although rising prices can be traced to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, civilians should not have to bear the burden; companies are still amassing huge profits created by the labor of workers. In just the past three months, TotalEnergies, a French oil company, made $9.9 billion USD according to Reuters, along with Shell reporting $9.5 billion USD, Chevron reporting $11 billion, and ExxonMobile reporting nearly $20 billion, according to PBS. 

However, mass action by workers could be seen in the United States in the near future; railroad workers in the US could strike as soon as Dec 9th, according to NPR. This comes after a deal was brokered in by President Biden on Sept 15, but did not fix the unions’ main grievance that was a strict, points-based attendance policy. Biden’s Emergency Board’s deal gave workers only one personal day, up from zero, a far cry from the 15 paid sick-days requested from the unions, as well as 24% wage increases over the next five years (the inflation rate between Oct 2021 and Oct 2022 was 7.7%, according to Statista)

Of the twelve labor unions representing rail workers, eight of them have voted to ratify the deal, but four have voted against. If no agreement is reached between the four unions and the railroad companies, workers could go on strike as soon as Dec 9. According to NPR, if one union strikes, all twelve will likely strike with them to join the picket line. If the rail owners and the government don’t give the workers a fair contract, the US economy could lose $2 billion a day, per PBS. 

American workers are expressing their frustrations in other sectors. On Nov 17, unionized Starbucks workers from more than 100 stores across the country walked out, due to Starbucks refusing to cooperate and bargain with unionized stores. The walkout coincided with Starbucks’ annual “Red Cup Day,” where stores give free reusable cups to customers who order a holiday drink, which is often the busiest day of the year, workers told AP. In California, about 48,000 staff members at all University of California campuses walked out on Nov 14 due to rising housing costs, according to the New York Times, causing some classes to be canceled, due to either disruption or solidarity with striking workers. 

The support for Labor unions in the United States is on the rise; According to Gallup polls, support for unions is at its highest since 1965, at 71%. With strongly anti-union companies such as Amazon and Starbucks getting unionized, and workplaces across the country organizing, mass direct action is becoming inevitable. With workers in America continuing to organize, it should be important for all Americans to support action and avoid breaking picket lines. From the Underground Railroad to the 5-day workweek to the Civil Rights movement, progress has come through organization and direct action. As Martin Luther King said, “the labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”