To labor-friendly Europeans, transport strikes like New York’s are part of life
PARIS – Restaurant cashier Micheline Lalande casts a knowing glance and chuckles over New Yorkers’ complaints about a three-day transit strike that ended Friday.In labor-friendly countries in Europe, strikes by transportation workers have long been a fact of life – often seen as a cherished right even by the suffering commuters.”A subway and bus strike in New York – that’s a laugh,” Lalande, 55, said as she readied for the lunch-hour rush at her eatery near the Champs-Elysees. “Compared to us, they have nothing to complain about.”In metropolitan Paris, there were three public transport strikes of some kind during the past three months. Residents of Marseille, France’s second-largest city, endured a 46-day public transport strike that ended in November.However, full-blown transit strikes that bring all traffic to a halt are rare thanks to laws in many countries requiring minimum service and because of frequent discord among unions.In Paris, the vast majority of transit strikes do not force the entire system to shut down, but rather reduce subway and bus service to a fraction of normal levels.Several national constitutions in Europe, as well as the proposed European Union charter, enshrine the right to strike.”Strikes are the only way to protect worker’s rights,” said Gabria Carlini, of Turin, Italy.Her car often gets bottled up in traffic on strike days.”If anything, there are too many taxes in Italy, not too many strikes,” she said.Some walkouts have been memorable. Europeans recall episodes of crippling strikes – 1994 in Spain, 1995 in France, and last year in the Netherlands.Farmers, teachers, truckers, fishermen, airline pilots, train drivers, hospital staffers – even actors and forest service workers – have gone on strike in Europe in recent years.A host of issues can spark walkouts. In Italy, Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s four-year-old government has faced strikes over its reform plans, safety issues, corporate restructuring and contract renewals. Strikes have become so institutionalized in Italy that unions sometimes announce walkouts before contract renewal talks begin.”In Italy, there are many strikes – perhaps more than in any another country – but usually they respect the rules,” said Antonio Martone, head of an independent commission that ensures public sector strikers respect the law.Even in Sweden, where strikes are rare, subway workers walked off the job for a half-day in October to protest the firing of a union official.The frequent strikes take an economic bite. The most recent figures from Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, show Italy lost nearly 4.9 million working days of economic activity in 2002 because of strikes.Britain, lost more than 1.3 million – the second-highest total.Today, large-scale strikes are a mostly distant memory in places like Britain or Ireland, where economic growth has been relatively high among EU member countries.Paul Kelly, a construction business owner in the northern English city of Leeds, remembered how Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher squared off against striking coal miners in a monthslong showdown in 1984.”That was horrible, that was like civil war,” said Kelly, 56. “But where have they all gone now? … Trade unions aren’t as strong as they used to be.”But a union of London Underground workers was planning a 24-hour strike at the city’s subway system – set to start New Year’s Eve – over work hours and staffing levels. Talks were under way to try to avert the walkout.In France, too, there’s exasperation. President Jacques Chirac complained this month, during a limited transit strike that affected 700,000 Paris-area commuters, about “the problem of too many strikes.”However, polls repeatedly show strong public support for strikers in France.”It’s a pain when transit workers go on strike, but naturally they’ve got the right to do it,” said Dominique Lesieur, a bartender who works with Lalande.New Yorkers, he said, had it easy: “One in 25 years there – we have them 25 times a year!”Vail, Colorado
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