A German judge blocked an impending railway strike Wednesday, ruling that it would disrupt the national economy. In 2005, workers for France's state-owned rail system organized strikes at least six times. Why are European railway workers always striking?
Because they're so powerful. Europe's railway systems are the backbones of the continent's national economies. Agricultural produce, coal, steel—it's all transported by train, making countries like Germany and France reliant on their networks. And since most European countries have nationalized rail systems—Britain is the major exception—their workers have the power to disrupt the entire country instead of just one region. Tourism, which accounts for roughly 9 percent (PDF) of Germany's GDP, also comes to a near halt during a rail strike. (Economists predicted that this strike could have cost the German economy hundreds of millions of euros.) That's why rail workers prefer summer to pull out the bargaining chips. And disrupting tourism tends to get media attention (look at us), which gives unions leverage for negotiation.
European labor laws also play a role. For one, many European countries have the right to strike written into their constitutions. Not so in the United States: American railway strikes are subject to the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which prohibits transportation strikes before extensive mediation efforts have been exhausted. Even then, workers aren't guaranteed the right to strike: A provision of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 lets the government force people back to work if their strike threatens to disrupt the national economy. The United States also prohibits federal government workers from striking—hence President Ronald Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers in 1981. (Something similar happened in Canada earlier this year: When Canadian rail workers went on strike, the Conservative government passed legislation ordering them back to work.) Germany and France, by contrast, treat public and private workers similarly.
In general, union-management relations aren't as adversarial in Europe as they are in the United States. Across the pond, strikes are just part of the negotiating process: Unions often organize "warning strikes" that last only a day or two to flex their collectivist muscles without doing significant economic damage. And that's how most Europeans prefer it. Ever since World War II, when Hitler cracked down on unions, German law and the country's popular opinion have sympathized with organized labor. Plus, European unionization levels are simply higher—around 20 percent of Germany's work force belonged to a union in 2003, as opposed to about 12.5 percent in the United States currently.
Strikes also tend to fluctuate with the economy, at least in Germany, where there have been fewer railway strikes over the past decade or so. That's due in part to the recognition that slower productivity growth means lower wages. But now that Germany's economy is improving, workers expect a raise, and that means agitating. Still, as countries outsource more manufacturing in the future, they'll become less dependent on domestic railways. That could lead to downsizing and wage cuts, which in turn could yield more strikes.
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Explainer thanks James Atleson of the University of Buffalo, Janice Bellace of the Wharton School, Lance Compa of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and John Craig of the University of Western Ontario.