Organized workers of the world are united on at least one big thing: that the recession which has settled over much of what was once called the developed world (and if we are not wise and active, may soon be better called the “undeveloping world”) should not load more onto the burdened backs of the working class.
But it will. Politicians everywhere see little choice.
In the United States, right-to-work laws are being pushed hard in those states with Republican leadership. The laws stop unions from forcing non-union workers to obey union decisions in plants where they have contracts. And when these laws are on the books, the unequivocal result is that union organization and membership slump. More controversially, those who support these laws claim that investment in the state grows – thus increasing the number of jobs and sometimes the level of wages.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing a package of measures, due to be outlined on Jan. 18 at a meeting with employers’ and union leaders, that he hopes will allow companies to reduce working hours and pay in slack times, with increases at a time of full demand. No one expects an agreement soon (if ever), and since the President faces a re-election battle in the spring, he is politically vulnerable to disruption. But even if Socialist candidate François Hollande, ahead now in the polls by some 10 percent, were to win, he would be trying something of the same, since French companies’ competitiveness is tending to fall.
In the UK, large if brief public sector strikes have disrupted transport, customs inspection and schools, as David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government seeks to impose cuts in public sector pensions and to stretch working life: a double whammy that the unions have regarded as unacceptable.
But it is in Italy, the largest of the European states now in the economic fever ward, that the struggle over the conditions under which working people sell their labor is most acute. The technocratic, unelected government of the former European Commissioner, former Bocconi University economics professor Mario Monti, increasingly finds itself drawn into a confrontation with the country’s three big union confederations – especially the CGIL, led by Susanna Camusso. And emerging at the heart of the confrontation is the defining element of the coming clash, at once symbolic and concrete: an article, number 18, of the 1970 Labor law, saying that sackings or layoffs of workers in any company employing more than 15 workers must, if challenged, be approved by a judge before they can go ahead. Employers hate it; the unions see it as a large achievement. The CGIL, professing itself ready to negotiate on many issues, has said in advance that Article 18 is “not for discussion.”