Considering the massive strikes in France, you and I might think that the whole country is pretty much unionized. We would be wrong.

Union Membership in Developed Countries

The idea for this article comes from a web search that led to a post titled How powerful are French trade unions? on the blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales. The author wrote about his research into “comparative levels of union membership in developed countries.” He was surprised by the “counter-intuitive” finding that France actually has one of the lowest levels of union membership. The chart below from an Economist article titled Deja vu? shows trade union membership by country. While the data are from 2001, the ranking and relative shares are similar today.

Current figures put French membership in trade unions at about 8 percent of the total workforce and overall union membership at around 11 percent. Though the OECD cautions that union density (membership as a portion of the total workforce) is difficult to measure reliably, the chart and other sources clearly show that France’s union membership is both quite low and far below that of other European countries and the U.S.

Strikes in Europe

Data aside, the French strikes and recent media coverage certainly make it seem like unions everywhere, and especially in France, have been flexing their muscles at will lately. Since September alone, France’s minimum wage reforms have driven millions of union protestors to the streets for multiple, nation-wide protests. In the process, French strikes have instigated widespread fuel shortages, halted all forms of public transportation at various times, closed schools, and cost the country 200 to 400 million euros ($280-$560 million) per day.

There are many more examples from earlier in the year in France and across Europe. Here are just a few of them. On April 21, French newspaper workers went on strike for the fourth time in 2010. In March, Finnish dockworkers struck for two weeks and crippled exports. Separate strikes by flight attendants of British Airways and Lufthansa disrupted air travel. French workers at Continental, a tire manufacturer, and other companies have even taken their bosses hostage.

Decline of Unions

Despite the attention-getting anecdotal evidence, unions have been much less active and influential in recent years. According to a Reuters special report on Europe’s unions, “Europe’s unions are less powerful, less influential, and less relevant than they have been for decades.” From 1970 to 2002, union density fell from 44.8 to 29.3 percent in Britain, 32 to 22.6 percent in Germany, and 21.7 to 8.3 percent in France. In the five-year period to 2008, union density rates fell in 22 of 24 countries. In late September, there was lackluster support behind Spanish preparations to hold the country’s first general strike since 2002. Work days lost to strikes are down considerably. There even appears to be confusion over whose interests and what causes the unions are really defending, with questions about whether workers rights should give way to other issues like the environment.

Key sources of union power have been declining for years in many cases. Unions have far fewer members and much less in their strike coffers than in years past. Since around the 1990s, a combination of new laws and deregulation in many European countries and greater foreign economic competition have made it harder for unions to organize effectively and easier for businesses to distance themselves from union demands. Along with the force of economic competition came the disappearance of effectively life-time employment arrangements and the increasing use of non-unionized temporary workers. New laws have also made it easier for companies to lay off workers and reduced the costs, such as severance requirements, of doing so. High unemployment in Europe led many workers to stop paying dues and drop their union memberships. Globalization and the growth of low-cost, skilled workforces in developing countries give companies more options for sourcing labor and relocating production facilities. Even within Europe, the European Union has brought about a more fluid, flexible labor force that leaves companies less beholden to domestic organizations. The on-going global economic malaise has further shifted the balance of bargaining power in favor of employers. Ironically, the unions also became somewhat less relevant as the workers’ rights that they had fought for in the past increasingly became part of the standard social contract in many countries.

On the other hand, while current economic conditions cut into union power, they can also be a catalyst for fomenting worker unrest and union activity. The forceful government austerity measures in the U.K. and other European countries may well put more pressure on workers and unions to fight for their livelihoods. Although so far, it seems more surprising that the extent of the economic downturn has not yet put more life and power back into the unions.

Source of Union Power in France

So how is it then that unions continue to wreak so much havoc in France despite their relatively limited membership? Several factors look to be at work. For one, union power in France is more a function of political clout and legal standing than one of numbers. According to the Economist, the power of French unions is “cemented … by their formal role in the welfare system – via the mutuelles, organizations for delivering health and unemployment insurance.” On a more cultural level, many French seem to see taking to the streets to protest and demonstrate as a natural way of expressing their political and social views whether they belong to the unions or not.  From a different perspective, the recent aggressiveness of French unions may also partly be a function of a desperate attempt to retain some level of influence as their relevance and power become increasingly uncertain.

For more information on the French strikes over the minimum retirement age and French way of life, see the post French Say Non! to Change and try the French Labor and Leisure Quiz.

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CNN Wire Staff. Controversial French Reform Gets Final Senate Approval. CNN World. October 26, 2010.

Economist. Coalition of the Unwilling. October 21, 2010.

Economist. Déjà vu? June 5, 2003.

Economist. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet. April 22, 2010.

Erlanger, Steven.  French Unions at Critical Point as Strikes Continue.  New York Times.  October 25, 2010.

Finnan, Dan.   French Strike – Paris 29/01/09 – Radio France International.  January 29, 2009.

Flip Chart Fairy Tales. How Powerful are French Trade Unions? March 21, 2009.

Morris, Sarah and Gavin Jones. Special Report: Is There Power in Europe’s Unions? Reuters. September 27, 2010.