This week has seen massive strikes in the French public railway services. While the unions are holding the French transport system hostage, only a fraction of both regional and high-speed intercity trains are operational. France is a notable example of what happens when unions gain the upper hand. But whom do they really protect?
During a recent carpool ride from Charleroi airport, I got to know a tram driver for the Brussels public transport system. She said this:
"I didn't want to participate in any of the recent strikes, but the union prevented me from getting access to the trams. They block the entrance to the garage, and don't let me do their job. I feel disconnected from their demands. The system is just fine the way it is right now."
While unions in Belgium brag with membership rates of over 50 per cent, it needs to be pointed out that the example of my driver certainly illustrates the frustration of the other 50 per cent. The large-scale effects of strike actions purport the illusion of support, yet ignore that many employees are the victims of the circumstances arranged by these trade unions. There seem to be increasing disparities between the needs of the employees and the demands of union leadership.
Nowhere is this more striking than in France, which is currently seeing large public railway strikes, expected to last over a month. In the last study conducted in 2016, France had a union membership rate of merely 11 per cent, with 19.8 per cent in the public sector and only 8.7 percent in the private sector. At the European level, France, with Lithuania and Estonia, is at the bottom of the ranking, and very far from the Nordic countries, with Finland having the highest membership rate in Europe with 74 percent, ahead of Sweden and Denmark. The European average is 23 per cent.
Needless to say that unions would claim that membership rates say very little about the legitimacy of their organisation (even though we could easily imagine that they would brag about having high rates, if that were the case), and that the participation during union representative elections counts. Last year, just above 50 per cent of public workers and merely 43 per cent of private employees casted a vote in these elections. The enthusiasm for trade unions in times in which workers rights are apparently "under threat", seems to be tame.
In the case of France, the unions CGT and SUD-Rail oppose any change in the status of SNCF (the public rail service) personnel. It is to be noted that the government reform is very moderate since current employees of the SNCF hired to that professional status will keep all the benefits and privileges associated with it. Changes are merely affecting new employees.
The pressure for the French government to at least make an attempt at reform comes from Brussels. The République has made a commitment at the European level to abolish old monopolies: postal service and telecommunications, gas and electricity distribution, rail transport. The process is underway in most countries and is producing excellent results after a number of transitional years. The same will be the case once France has liberalised both regional and high-speed railway lines by 2020.
The unions however, want to protect the public rail as a "service in the public interest", and claims that the SNCF is under the threat of being privatised. Given that the political voices out of Paris this week have been tame, a complete privatisation seems unthinkable. In fact, any significant reform seems unthinkable as long as no leader is willing to stand up to the trade unions.
In the United Kingdom in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher accurately identified the threat that trade union dominance poses to the economy of a country. She said:
"What we face is a threat to our whole way of life...The case is now surely overwhelming, there will be no solution to our difficulties which does not include some restriction on the power of the unions."
"There are people in this country who are the great destroyers; they wish to destroy the kind of free society we have. They wouldn't have the freedom and the kind of society they wish to impose on us. Many of those people are in the unions. Many many people in the unions do not wish to strike, and I think many of those who struck in hospitals and in the ambulance service didn't wish to. I'm not suggesting that every strike is dominated by those, but a number are."
Thatcher pointed out, and rightfully so, that it is not only the success of the government that is questioned by the paralysing effect of union action, but also the success of all those who strive to achieve more in their lives. The French newspaper Le Parisien headlined a story on Tuesday with the quote "SNCF strike: I will be forced to take day's leave". With a broken-down transportation network, France is neither attractive for business nor functional for its own people. The workers of the public railway provider are disliked by those unable to get to work, and gain no standing against the tame attempts of governmental reform, that doesn't even affect them.
So whom exactly to unions protect?
Do they stand for the professions they claim to protect, or are they just a tool of inflating the egos of trade union leaders, who display no intention to compromise?
Eventually, people will recognise that the unions dominating a set of countries in Europe are just as ridiculous as the following quote by French CGT-trade union leader Philippe Martinez, speaking about the attendance rate at a large really being hosted in Paris:
"For this rally, we thought about everything, except the fact that the trains weren't running."
You really couldn't make it up.