Industrial Strife in Western Europe

June 2, 1971

Report Outline
Labor's Challenge to European Stability
Development of Trade Unionism in Europe
Search for Ways to Achieve Labor Peace
Special Focus

Labor's Challenge to European Stability

Spread of ‘English Disease’ Through Europe

The “ENGLISH DISEASE,” inflationary wage settlements arising from trade-union militancy, is spreading through Western Europe. Strikes and other work stoppages have extended from industrial Sweden in the north to impoverished Portugal in the south. More working days, 12.1 million in all, were lost through strikes in Britain in the first three months of 1971 than during any entire year since 1926. The initiative for much of the industrial unrest both in Britain and on the European continent comes from the shop floor. Disruptive, often spontaneous, actions take the union hierarchy as much by surprise as management. Union leaders, fearing a loss of control, have been quick to sanction unofficial—“wildcat”—strikes and to echo, rather than restrain, worker demands.

Many of the wildcat strikes have as much to do with working conditions as with pay, a reflection of the deep malaise running through European industry. Italy was on the verge of total paralysis in early May when beset by dozens of strikes, ranging from that of 400,000 truck drivers to that of 200,000 hotel and restaurant workers. More than one million Romans were without water for a time, and garbage was left in the streets. The result is that the present Italian government of Premier Emilio Colombo finds it nearly impossible to govern.

Even placid Switzerland, virtually without strikes for 35 years, has not escaped entirely from the labor turmoil. Wildcat strikes have erupted in Geneva, a condition which the Swiss Review of World Affairs attributes to “rootless foreign workers, uncertainty about corporate mergers, [and] extremist agitators.” In the background of a recent government crisis in Finland were strikes by metal and construction workers spurred on by the Communists against the will of the dominant Social Democrats. In Sweden, a socialist government was obliged to apply an emergency law to force strikers, including government workers and some army officers, back to work.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Regional Political Affairs: Europe
Unions and Labor-Management Relations