Relative calm on the industrial action front in 2020
Despite the economic turmoil that led to large-scale restructuring in many EU Member States and changes in working conditions for many occupational groups, 2020 seems to have been a quiet year in terms of industrial action. At the time of writing this article, national statistics for 2020 are available in only a few countries; however, several correspondents have reported a clear decline in industrial action. The most significant labour disputes related to COVID-19 occurred in the human health and social services sector, the education sector, and the transportation and logistics sector. Social distancing measures, the fear of job losses in a tense economic environment, deferred collective bargaining talks, the lack of organisation in the most impacted sectors, and strike restrictions on essential services are some of the factors that may explain the low level of industrial action.
This article is one of a series that explores working life issues in the 27 EU Member States, Norway and the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is based on information provided by the Network of Eurofound Correspondents and published as a set of individual country reports in ‘Working life in the COVID-19 pandemic 2020’.
- Country reports: Working life in the COVID-19 pandemic 2020
Economic shocks, crises and subsequent turbulence can act as transition points for labour markets and shape them in profound ways. These systemic shocks can also impact on social dialogue, although the relationship between such shocks and industrial action is complex. This article discusses the impact of the first year of the COVID-19 crisis on industrial action in EU Member States, Norway and the UK.
Economic crises and labour disputes
While the COVID-19 crisis represents first and foremost a threat to public health, it has also proved to be a severe economic destabiliser, triggering uncertainty in the labour market and pushing sections of the workforce into unemployment. Increased uncertainty in the labour market, however, does not directly lead to a rise in industrial action. One example of this is the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the subsequent economic destabilisation of Europe, and in particular the euro area, which resulted in large changes in European labour markets. During the financial crisis, the substantial and persistent rise in unemployment, extensive fiscal stimulus packages passed by governments, along with megatrends, such as digitalisation and the globalisation of production, shaped the European labour market. While large-scale anti-austerity strikes were organised in some southern European countries that were severely affected by the crisis, overall, the financial crisis did not lead to a substantial increase in strike activity. Data collected by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) indicate that there was a long-term, albeit uneven, decline in strike activity between 2000 and 2018 in Europe. There was a small peak in 2010 but this can be mainly attributed to strikes against pension reforms in France. 
- ETUI: Strikes map of Europe
Factors contributing to a decline in strike activity
The factors contributing to a decline in strike activity are complex. Structural changes in the European economy are often mentioned as one factor. The size of the workforce in the manufacturing sector has been in decline while the service sector has expanded. Since strikes are mainly organised by trade unions, the decreasing size of the highly unionised manufacturing sector and the expansion of the service sector, where trade union density is lower, has contributed to a decline in strike activity. However, the link between trade union density and strike activity is not straightforward. Strikes can be used by both trade unions with relatively weak bargaining powers and unions with strong bargaining powers.  For instance, France combines low trade union density with a high level of strike activity. In Sweden, a well-functioning mediation system contributes to peaceful solutions in labour disputes and makes Sweden a country that combines high trade union density with a low level of strike activity.
Workers’ readiness to strike may be another factor in the decline in strike activity. Economic crises often have a deep impact on workers’ prospects. Increased economic uncertainty and a perceived threat of job loss can increase workers’ reluctance to strike  and may be one of the reasons why the financial crisis of 2007–2008 did not lead to an increase in strike activity.
Other factors that may contribute to a decline in strike activity and the differences between various countries include institutional features, such as strike pay, mediation systems and the regulation of industrial action. Furthermore, industrial action and strikes in particular are used in different ways and in various contexts. In some countries, industrial action is directly related to social dialogue and collective bargaining, whereas in other countries mass strikes are used to promote political goals. Moreover, other forms of industrial action, such as the refusal to work overtime, do not show up in the statistics. Therefore, a decline in strike activity does not necessarily indicate a decline in labour disputes.
Slowdown in industrial action in 2020
Like the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the first year of the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in major turbulence in the labour market across Europe. The rapid onset of economic uncertainty and a significant rise in unemployment rates have affected the lives of many European workers and entrepreneurs. But the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the labour market are by no means only financial. The European Commission and Eurofound estimate that just 37% of employment is potentially ‘teleworkable’. For workers who are not able to telework, exposure to the virus is inevitable. This puts significant pressure on employers to ensure the safety of their employees, which is another issue that could easily become a matter of dispute. As the findings of Eurofound’s ‘Living, working and COVID-19’ surveys indicate, restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus have shaped working conditions in many sectors and short-time working schemes have been widely used to buffer the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on organisations.
- Publication: Living, working and COVID-19
- Working paper: Teleworkability and the COVID-19 crisis: a new digital divide?
Despite this turbulence, EU Member States, Norway and the UK do not seem to have experienced a significant increase in industrial action. Full official data on industrial action in 2020 are not yet available (and in some countries such data are no longer collected). However, information collected by the Network of Eurofound Correspondents (where such data were available) indicates that 2020 was a calm year in terms of industrial action and relatively few labour disputes of national significance were identified.
In Spain, the number of working days lost due to industrial action decreased by 47% between January and September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. In Poland, the preliminary statistics indicate that there were 27 registered strikes in 2020 and 41,900 working hours were lost. This is a significant decrease compared with 2019 when 9,835 strikes were registered and the number of hours lost due to strikes amounted to 8.6 million. In Portugal, the number of strike warnings fell significantly compared with 2019, especially during the second and fourth quarters of the year. In Denmark, there was a clear decline in the number of labour disputes between January and September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. In Sweden, the number of days lost due to lockouts, strikes and work stoppages was zero, despite a large-scale collective bargaining round that in previous years had often led to a spike in industrial action. In Czechia and Slovakia, the number of disputes did not change compared with 2019.
Human health and social services sector
Increased workloads, postponed holidays and high exposure to the virus characterised the working conditions of public sector employees during the first year of the crisis. Yet, only a few significant cases of industrial action were identified. In Germany, warning strikes (short strikes organised before actual industrial action takes place) were organised in which tens of thousands of public sector workers, including employees in the human health and social services sector, participated. The reason for the warning strikes was that social partners did not find common ground in relation to wage increases, working hours and a one-off COVID-19 bonus for employees in the healthcare sector. In Hungary, a three-day warning strike was organised by municipal workers in reaction to the government’s plan to withdraw municipal resources and weaken employment security. In Malta and Greece, healthcare employees took part in demonstrations and similar smaller-scale actions.
The COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions that were put in place to curb the spread of the virus led to significant changes in employees’ working conditions in the education sector. School closures, a rapid shift to ICT-based learning and increased workloads posed significant challenges for educators across Europe.
The Network of Eurofound Correspondents reported labour disputes in some countries. In Estonia, wage freezes for 2021 led to a dispute. Working conditions triggered labour disputes in Hungary, Ireland and Latvia. In Malta and the UK, labour disputes in the education sector were related to demands from teachers for remote learning and their objections to returning to in-person classes. In Greece, the teachers’ associations went on strike and demonstrated against the government’s educational reform plans. As mentioned above, Hungarian municipal workers held a three-day warning strike due to the COVID-19 crisis measures. In Norway, private childcare employees went on strike in an attempt to improve working conditions.
Transportation and logistics sector
One of the sectors where the impact of the COVID-19 crisis was particularly acute in 2020 was the transportation and logistics sector. Organisations focusing on passenger transport were hit hard by the travel restrictions, which also led to many cases of restructuring. In the logistics sector, increased online shopping led to sharp workload increases for couriers and warehouse workers in many countries.
These changes triggered a number of labour disputes in several European countries. In Estonia, an industrial dispute was sparked when Tallink Grupp, the country’s largest shipping company, announced large-scale dismissals despite having signed an agreement prohibiting dismissals until the end of May 2021. In Greece, air traffic controllers went on strike to protest against the restructuring of the country’s Civil Aviation Authority and delayed salary payments. Disputes in the passenger air traffic sector took place in Malta, but did not lead to industrial action. In Norway, bus drivers went on strike to demand a wage increase.
In France, Germany and the UK, general working conditions and insufficient measures to stop the spread of the virus in some workplaces led to labour disputes in the logistics sector. In France, employees working in Amazon warehouses threatened to strike due to insufficient safety measures. In Germany, Amazon warehouse workers went on strike after many tested positive for COVID-19. In the UK, workers walked out of online retailer ASOS’s warehouse due to concerns over insufficient social distancing and other safety measures. Walkouts due to similar concerns over insufficient safety measures were also organised by UK postal staff.
Complex reasons behind low level of industrial action
As mentioned above, the factors contributing to a decline or an increase in industrial action are complex, which makes it difficult to gauge why so little industrial action seems to have taken place in the EU Member States, Norway and the UK in 2020. However, some possible reasons to explain this inactivity may be put forward at this stage.
First, the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent social distancing measures made industrial action impractical to arrange in 2020. Organising strikes and demonstrations in the midst of a pandemic is a challenge for trade unions, since lockdowns and telework make mobilising workers, assembling and balloting a much more complex endeavour. Some countries also restricted the right to protest. For instance, Slovenia introduced a fine of between €1,200 and €12,000 for organising a protest during the epidemic. Greece brought in a law that restricts public protests and holds organisers accountable for any damage caused by protesters. However, there have also been signs of trade unions finding new ways to organise strikes, for example, in March 2021 the German metal sector organised the first ICT-based warning strike.
Second, the seemingly lower incidence of disputes during the pandemic could be a matter of optics and legitimacy. Taking industrial action during a public health crisis and economic downturn could be viewed as irresponsible and could affect how the organisations involved are regarded by the public as well as their paying members – a risk many social partner organisations may not be willing to take. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have shaped collective bargaining in several countries. In Germany, Sweden and Norway, collective bargaining negotiations were deferred due to the pandemic. This is likely to have influenced industrial action, particularly in countries where strikes are allowed only when they are related to collective bargaining.
Third, in some of the sectors that were hit particularly hard by the crisis, such as the service sector, trade union density is comparatively low. As discussed above, organising workers in the service sector has been a challenge. It is possible that there is a link between the negative impact on the service sector, with its lower trade union density, and the lack of industrial action.
Fourth, despite the significant impact the crisis has had on working conditions, in many countries some occupational groups in the public sector cannot go on strike as the right to strike is limited and in some cases prohibited. Romania, for example, has introduced temporary restrictions to the right to strike for essential workers due to the pandemic. This public sector strike restraint could be one of the reasons why the Network of Eurofound Correspondents has mainly reported just demonstrations and other small-scale cases of industrial action in the human health and social services sector – although the dramatic impact of the pandemic on working conditions is widely recognised and reported.
Finally, in 2020 the focus of governments in Europe was on keeping businesses afloat. Extensive austerity measures such as cuts to public spending, similar to those that spurred large-scale strikes in the aftermath of the 2007–2008 financial crisis, were not introduced in 2020.
Other types of protests under COVID-19
The above-mentioned factors contributed to the apparent decrease in strikes and other forms of industrial action organised by trade unions. However, it is important to point out that trade unions are not the only actors organising protests, since employees are not the only group affected by the crisis.
In Bulgaria and Poland, self-employed people and entrepreneurs, especially in hard-hit sectors such as the hospitality and tourism sector, protested against the restrictions. Employers in Slovakia organised demonstrations to demand more support from the government. In Lithuania, self-employed food delivery couriers demonstrated against reduced service rates and working conditions.
Political demonstrations against measures taken by governments to curb the spread of the virus were organised in Germany, Latvia and the Netherlands. In Slovenia, thousands of cyclists gathered regularly to protest against the government due to allegations of corruption and to demand large-scale societal changes.
The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have resulted in a relative calmness in industrial action across Europe. The health risks and the restrictions aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus are probable key factors contributing to this calmness.
It is difficult to organise strikes or demonstrations in the midst of a pandemic and it involves high risks both in terms of health and legitimacy. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 crisis will have a long-term effect on strike activity, the landscape of actors organising strikes and other protests or whether in the near future we will witness more ICT-based strikes and other new ways of protesting.
Image © Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock
Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.