Do more unionised workers mean more strikes?

14 November 2012

Today marks the first Pan-European general strike, as 40 trade unions across 23 European countries take to the streets in protest at austerity measures imposed by governments attempting to cut the public deficit.

But how many workers are unionised these days? And more fundamentally, is there a connection between how strike-prone a workforce is and what proportion of it is unionised?

We gathered figures from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (known as Eurofound), a European Union body set up by the Council to contribute to the planning and design of better living and working conditions in Europe.  

We found that as of 2008, 25% of the UK workforce was unionised. This is well below the European average of 34.7%, though it's worth pointing out that this is brought up considerably by Scandinavian countries such as Finland, where a staggering 87.9% of the workforce is unionised. 

Reports across the media today suggest the stoppages in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy have been the most significant. Curiously, these countries don't have a particularly high percentage of unionised workers, with membership 12.8% for Spain, 17.1% for Greece, 16.4% for Portugal and a fairly high 50% in the case of Italy. 

Alhough these are pre-recession figures, one might conclude that there is no discernible link between unionisation and the inclination of a workforce to strike. 

Some evidence: The case of Poland

Though only 11.2% of Polish workers are unionised, according to Eurostat Poland experienced an astonishing 12,670 strikes involving more than 280,000 employees in 2008. That figure is of course an anomaly. Within the same period in 2007, 1,700 strikes were reported, involving almost 36,000 employees. 

As with everything, there is an explanation. A survey carried out by Poland's Central Statistical Office (G?ówny Urz?d Statystyczny or GUS) showed that most of the strikes in 2008 lasted only few hours while, in 2007, strike activity lasted on average 20 hours.

Source: Eurofund, (2008)

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