Yesterday, I was looking at comparative levels of union membership in developed countries. I really do need to get out more.
The highest in the OECD and in Europe are the Scandinavian countries, with somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of workers belonging to trade unions. As you might expect, union membership in the UK is relatively low at around 28 percent. Surprisingly, only 16 percent of Poland’s workers are union members, which is only just ahead of the union-busting USA, with 11.6%.
Not quite. According to both sets of figures, only eight percent of French workers are members of a trade union. Yes, that’s right, eight. Not eighty, not eighteen. Just eight per cent! France has a lower proportion of its workforce in trade unions than the USA.
That is counter-intuitive to say the least. For as long as I can remember, I’ve read about how powerful French unions are and how scared of them governments of all colours have been. It’s taken as read that the unions can hold the country to ransom. And clearly, if the latest round of riots and demonstrations is anything to go by, they can get even the most determined government rattled.
How the hell do they do it? How can organisations that only represent 8 percent of the workforce mobilise these huge strikes and protests?
It could be that they’ve caught the public mood. People are certainly angry about the financial crisis. But this isn’t the first time French unions have brought France to a standstill. So how come the unions are so small, relative to those in other countries, yet so powerful?
I’d be interested to hear views on this from anyone who has worked in France or done business there, or, indeed, anyone who has some insight into this strange paradox.
Answers in the usual place please, because I’m damned if I know.