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Main Article

2016, Vol. 22(3) 277–294
Interpreting strike activity ª The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
in western Europe in the past
DOI: 10.1177/1024258916658804
20 years: the labour repertoire
under pressure

Kurt Vandaele
ETUI, Brussels

This article provides a comparative overview of developments in strike activity in western Europe
since the mid-1990s. It uses various indicators to analyse discernible trends over time in levels and
patterns of strike activity across sectors and countries. The article argues that strikes are generally
blending into a broader palette of workers’ repertoire of collective action. This possible blending
applies in particular to a context in which the institutional logic of collective bargaining is under-
developed or has been undermined.

Cet article présente un aperçu comparatif des évolutions des mouvements de grève en Europe
occidentale depuis le milieu des années 1990. Il utilise différents indicateurs pour analyser les
tendances identifiables au fil du temps, en termes de niveaux et de modèles d’actions de grève dans
les différents secteurs et les différents pays. L’article soutient que les grèves se combinent gén-
éralement avec d’autres éléments, au sein d’une palette plus large d’actions collectives des tra-
vailleurs. La combinaison ainsi obtenue s’observe tout particulièrement dans un contexte où la
logique institutionnelle de la négociation collective a été mise à mal.

Der vorliegende Artikel liefert eine vergleichende Übersicht über die Entwicklung der Streik-
aktionen seit Mitte der 90er Jahre. Anhand unterschiedlicher Indikatoren werden erkennbare
zeitliche Trends im Hinblick auf Streikebenen und Streikmuster im Branchen- und Länd-
ervergleich analysiert. Es wird argumentiert, dass Streiks inzwischen generell Bestandteil eines
deutlich weiter gefassten Repertoires der Arbeitnehmern zur Verfügung stehenden Kampf-
maßnahmen sind. Die mögliche Kombination mit anderen Mitteln gilt besonders für einen
Kontext, in dem die institutionelle Logik von Tarifverhandlungen unterlaufen wurde.

Corresponding author:
Kurt Vandaele, European Trade Union Institute, Bd du Roi Albert II, 5, 1210 Brussels, Belgium.

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278 Transfer 22(3)

Strikes, anti-austerity protest, trade unions, action repertoire

Is the mapping and analysing of strike trends still relevant in the 21st century? Wolfgang
Streeck, Germany’s most renowned economic sociologist, affirms that it is: he expects that the
surging social conflict in Europe’s largest economy is ‘here to stay’ (The Guardian, 22 May
2015) as pay and working conditions are deteriorating, especially in the public sector. Turning
to the rest of Europe, austerity policies undoubtedly triggered a new cycle of social protest in
2010–2011 (Quaranta, 2015). Within a context of increasing precarious employment, it looks
like social protest has been marked by growing fragmentation since the ‘Great Recession’
(hereafter: Recession): it is expressed by urban riots, such as those in the UK in 2011 and
Sweden in 2013, wildcat strikes at the company level and large-scale demonstrations and
general strikes (Schmalz et al., 2015). It appears that the context of the Recession has provided
a fertile empirical ground for researchers of employment relations to analyse strikes again
within the broader lens of a workers’ repertoire of collective action.1 Certainly, such an
approach to labour unrest with unions acting as social movements is not novel. However, it
should be borne in mind that many unions are also bureaucratic organizations relying on
institutional power resources. Nonetheless, our reading of the available strike data is that it
is tempting today to claim that the action repertoire has been undergoing noteworthy diversi-
fication, although not to the same extent in all economic sectors and all western European
countries, this article’s geographical focus.
Emphasizing the domestic context, the framework developed by social movement researchers
Gentile and Tarrow (2009) is a useful heuristic tool for understanding this diversification.
Their framework allows us to interpret the prevailing or changing repertoire across sectors
and countries via the degree of legal-institutionalized recognition of labour rights, the stability
of which is challenged by ‘regime change’. In corporatist settings, with fairly robust legal-
institutionalized resources, their framework predicts that workers will deploy a labour reper-
toire. Thus, industrial action dominates the repertoire and workers will seek the solidarity of
other unions and frame their demands in terms of the expansion or violation of their labour
rights. While adaptation or innovation in this repertoire is possible, it will probably focus on
the tactics and actions themselves. However, if labour rights are severely curtailed, as in
neoliberal regimes, this might lead to a shift towards a citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire:
grievances will be framed in terms of civil rights; workers will build alliances with social
movements, not just unions; and they will resort to civil legal institutions for protection.
Indeed, the claim has recently been advanced that the US labour movement is going ‘back
to the future’ (Milkman, 2013) regarding its repertoire, being reminiscent of social movement
unionism and associated with the citizens’ rights realm (Johnston, 2000). In reality, a dichot-
omous approach to the repertoire is too simple as workers could combine both repertoires by
layering one repertoire on a pre-existing one (Gentile, 2015).

1 At the same time, several social movement researchers have made a plea for analysing the ‘old’ labour
movement and returning to concepts such as class and social conflict in the sociology of work (e.g.
Della Porta, 2015).

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Vandaele 279

Studying strike behaviour demands a disaggregated trade union-centred approach because

unions normally call strikes. This implies an analysis of the following: the legal-institutionalized
settings in which unions act and their collective identity, purposes and leadership; their strike
history, tactical playlist and membership composition; and union competition and employers’
attitudes to industrial action. Such an in-depth approach is not possible here. Therefore, as a
proxy, with the help of the Gentile-Tarrow framework, we turn to assessing the overall shape of
strikes within national borders over time, combined with the sectoral variability of strike
behaviour.2 However, the claim with regard to diversification in the workers’ collective action
repertoire is methodologically hard to back up in such a mainly quantitative research design.
Ideally, to prove or disprove the diversification claim would require analysing the proportion of
strikes vis-à-vis non-strike actions. But longitudinal and comparative data on industrial action
short of strikes (labour repertoire) and other forms and expressions of workers’ collective action
(citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire) are lacking for most countries. Hence, an analysis solely
based on strike data could only be a starting point as the degree of comparability of these data
across sectors and countries is debatable. Strike data tend to reflect idiosyncratic national
collection methods; small-scale strikes in particular are either overlooked by the statistical
bureaus or ignored due to threshold criteria. Nevertheless, strike data remain an important
source for analysing one of the most visible expressions of workers’ collective action in the
employment relationship.

The aggregated strike picture: sustained cross-national diversity

Historically, strategic strikes by industrial unions in combination with political exchange
processes have contributed to workers’ legal-institutionalized recognition, thereby fostering
a labour repertoire (including industrial action short of strikes) in western Europe (Visser,
2012). Particularly outside southern Europe, countries with strong corporatist arrangements,
by virtue of labour-related political parties, ‘routinized’ strikes within collective bargaining
and tried to bind them institutionally. Accordingly, bargaining structures and strike regula-
tion largely mirrored the actual pattern strikes took. Despite their institutionalization, strikes
did not immediately wither away: factory-level strikes in manufacturing industry were
central in the social protest cycle of 1968–1974 (Dubois, 1978). However, in the 1990s,
strike activity decreased and has stayed at a rather low level in western Europe, although
with significant country variation. Does this strike picture persist today? Strikes have a
multi-dimensional character, reflected in three main indicators: the number of strikes, the
number of workers going on strike and the number of days not worked due to industrial
action. The days not worked per 1000 employees (days-not-worked rate) is considered the
most reliable indicator for cross-national comparisons. The line graphs in Figure 1 depict the
weighted average of this rate for most west European countries; the data series start in 1995
and end in 2014. This 20-year period enables us to put recent developments, encompassing
the deepening of the Recession, into a longer perspective. The bar graphs, smoothing peaks in
the days not worked, compare the countries’ average days-not-worked rate in 2005–2014 with
the previous decade.
Focusing on the weighted days-not-worked average and especially its development since the
Recession, the line graphs show a relative peak in 2010, resulting mainly from ‘national days of

2 Transnational actions are not analysed as such.

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280 Transfer 22(3)

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
(19) (19) (19) (19) (18) (18) (18) (18) (18) (18) (18) (18) (18) (16) (15) (16) (16) (16) (16) (15)


97 95 100

Weighted average days-not-worked rate

Days-not-worked rate (countries)


65 63
150 62
56 55 60
54 52 50 51
44 45
100 38 39
36 36 40



0 0





































Average days-not-worked rate, 1995−2004 Average days-not-worked rate, 2005−2014 Weighted average

Figure 1. Days-not-worked rate in western Europe since 1995 and country comparisons.
Note: Bar graphs sorted by 2005–2014 data. Number of countries between brackets on horizontal axis above. No data
available: France (2014), Greece (1999–2014), Italy (2009–2014), Luxembourg (2008–2014) and Portugal (2008–2009). Data
since 2005 for France are calculated by combining strike data in the public and private sector.
Source: ETUI.

action’ against pension reforms in France (Ancelovici, 2011), after which the days-not-worked
average declines to a level lower than before the Recession. This is also reflected in the bar graphs:
days-not-worked rates have increased in only a limited number of countries in the past decade. It is
instantly clear that Cyprus is well ahead at the top of the ‘strike league’ because of an open-ended
conflict that erupted in construction in 2013. Compared with the previous decade, the average
days-not-worked rate rose in only four other countries: Belgium, France, Germany and Luxem-
bourg. However, for the latter three countries, data issues might be involved: for France and
Germany the method for collecting strike information has changed and there are no data after
2007 for Luxembourg (Dribbusch and Vandaele, 2016). This small country will therefore be left
out of the analysis; the same applies to Cyprus and Malta. Nevertheless, the anti-austerity protests
appear barely visible. There are at least three reasons for this, indicating that the strike picture is far
more differentiated than Figure 1 would suggest and that the domestic context is a significant
factor for understanding cross-national diversity.3

3 A Spearman’s correlation coefficient of 0.81 (p<0.001) between the countries’ rank orders in the two
periods concerned confirms their relative stable position in the ‘strike league’ – Greece, Italy and
Luxembourg are excluded.

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Vandaele 281

First, the number of countries covered by and the reliability of strike data has fallen since 2008.
While underestimation of strike activity is an old methodological problem, this is especially
relevant for southern European countries. Data are absent from 1999 and 2009 onwards for Greece
and Italy, respectively; and while data have always been lacking for strikes in the public admin-
istration in Portugal, there are no data at all for 2008–2009; furthermore, certain public sector and
general strikes in Spain have been excluded in 2010, 2012 and 2013. Hence, cross-national
differences in the days not worked and its weighted average, particularly since the Recession, are
both clearly underestimated and would rise if the missing data could be taken into account. This
holds true in particular because southern Europe can be labelled the geographical epicentre of anti-
austerity protest (Schmalz et al., 2015) and Greece, Italy and Spain have been consistently above
average in the European ‘country-strike league’ (Vandaele, 2011). Secondly, the structural crisis of
the finance-dominated accumulation regime has affected the European economies differently.
Although economic hardship has provided a context for grievances and feelings of relative depri-
vation, the politics of austerity since 2010 can be associated with the social protest cycle as they
made it more likely that blame would be attributed to political authorities (Bermeo and Bartels,
2014). Besides the austerity drive’s timing and severity, the organizational cohesion between
unions and institutional access for negotiations between them and governments have also varied,
all of which has generated national-specific dynamics of resistance (Ancelovici, 2015). Thirdly,
nationally embedded action repertoires also explain the continuing cross-national variation in
days-not-worked rates and their uneven development.4 In particular, general strikes are barely or
not part of the repertoire in several EU countries because they are (deemed) unlawful. It is more
likely that general strikes, but also generalized large-scale strikes in the public sector – for example,
education, health sector or public transport – both of which can be united under the label of ‘political
mass strikes’ (Gall, 2013), dominate the strike data. Such political mass strikes involve many
workers, thereby punctuating days-not-worked rates and accentuating their volatility.5
Hence, in order to interpret days-not-worked rates, an analytical distinction should be made
between political mass strikes and strikes in the realm of collective bargaining. Not only do they
normally influence days-not-worked rates differently, but more importantly they (can) vary as to
their purpose and opponent, spatial dimension and social significance. In practice, however, the
distinction might be blurred as both types can mutually influence each other, a point already made
by Rosa Luxemburg. In countries where strikes targeted at the government are legally restricted,
social protest will, in all likelihood, be expressed via other types of collective action. The Central
and Eastern European countries exemplify this variety in the repertoire: in several – though not all
– of them, governments’ neoliberal-inspired austerity policy packages put an end to labour quies-
cence and prompted demonstrations, a protest type that now dominates the repertoire (Greskovits,
2015). The aforementioned Gentile-Tarrow framework helps to explain why workers in Central
and Eastern European countries, with generally weak legal-institutional resources, are increas-
ingly relying on collective non-strike actions in the employment relationship. Thus, Greskovits
(2015: 282) identifies ‘tectonic changes in labour’s typical voices of discontent’, essentially
supporting the framework’s expectations. As he suggests, the dynamic Gentile-Tarrow framework
also looks suitable for a historical and comparative understanding of strike developments in
western Europe.

4 The standard deviation of the weighted average rises from 106 in 1995–2004 to 116 days not worked in
5 Long-lasting strikes in the collective bargaining context could have a similar effect.

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282 Transfer 22(3)

Table 1. The shape of strikes, 1995–2004 and 2005–2014.

Country groups Frequency Size Duration

Southern countries 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014

Italy 53.8 (40.7) 2073.3 (1000.2) 1.2 (1.1)
Portugal 65.7 31.8 197.5 429.9 1.5 1.2
Spain 64.6 54.8 1832.0 494.3 2.4 2.5
Low-strike 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014
Austria n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.2 0.2
Germany n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.6 2.7
Netherlands 2.5 3.2 2290.9 1406.6 3.1 2.3
Norway 7.5 3.1 959.9 1473.1 10.9 8.6
Sweden 3.7 1.9 1457.8 535.8 4.3 7.2
Switzerland 1.6 1.6 2154.6 514.8 1.5 4.5
Mixed country group 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014
Finland 47.4 69.7 568.4 427.3 2.5 1.9
Ireland 23.6 7.2 609.2 1717.1 6.3 5.4
Denmark 389.4 151.7 127.8 109.0 1.8 4.7
UK 8.1 5.2 1572.1 3795.9 2.6 1.5
Note: No data available for Belgium, France (2005–2014), Greece (1995–1998), Italy (2009/2010–2014) and Portugal
(2008–2009) and on the frequency and size for Austria and Germany.
Source: ETUI.

The shape of strikes

Based on the strike indicators, the overall ‘shape’ of strikes can be calculated. Dividing the strike
frequency per million workers in employment represents the first dimension. The second dimension
is the number of strikers per strike or mean size of a strike. The last dimension refers to the duration
or the days not worked divided by the number of workers on strike. Based on the shape of strikes at
least three prevailing groups of countries in western Europe have been identified historically,
although with some noteworthy changes since the 1990s (Bordogna and Cella, 2002): a group
consisting of southern countries marked by frequent, large-scale but short strikes, resulting in high
days-not-worked rates; a country group characterized by a low strike frequency but rather large and
lengthy strikes with low days-not-worked rates as an outcome; and a ‘mixed group’ showing features
of both other country groups. In order to assess whether this clustering still holds true, the overall
shape of strikes is calculated for different countries over the past two decades (see Table 1).

Still intact – the southern ‘strike front’

In most southern European countries, attempts to channel industrial conflict via ‘social pacts’ in
the 1990s and beyond help to explain the generally decreasing strike activity and days-not-worked
rates before the Recession (Vandaele, 2011: 16–17). Since then, there has been a resurgence of
industrial conflict, especially addressing the political dimension via general strikes. Showing
unions’ capacity to mobilize, such one-day demonstration strikes, aimed at governments, have
been historically and geographically concentrated in southern Europe and Greece particularly. In
general, in Europe as whole, such strikes, or the threat of them, have been on the rise since the
1980s (Kelly, 2015: 11). They are not called for an indefinite period with the explicit purpose of

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Vandaele 283

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
30 16

14 14

Total number of general strikes per year

Number of general strikes per country

12 12

15 8 8 8



0 0














Southern Europe Low-strike countries Mixed country group

1995−2004 2005−2009 2010−2015 Development over time

Figure 2. General strikes (including threats) in western Europe since 1995.

Source: Data provided by John Kelly.

bringing down the government; today’s general strikes are directed towards (unilateral) govern-
ment policy initiatives or policies, with the purpose of pushing their policy closer to union pre-
ferences. As this requires a different research design, their effectiveness in moderating or reversing
austerity packages and penalizing incumbent governments cannot be analysed here, but it is
claimed that governments offered concessions in 35 per cent of 92 general strikes between 1980
and 2013 (Kelly, 2015: 13). Figure 2 demonstrates that general strikes can still be largely associ-
ated with southern Europe and increased in the period 2010–2013. More qualitative research is
needed on the extent to which workers act upon union strike calls, the actual form of those strikes
and their significance for influencing the political agenda and discourse.
Solely based on the data in Table 1, the existence of a southern ‘strike front’ seems doubtful as
data for France and Greece are lacking and the official strike data of the other countries have
deficiencies. Nevertheless, the short duration of strikes in Italy, Portugal and to some extent Spain
parallels the use of one-day mass demonstration strikes. Correspondingly, unions usually do not
have strike funds. In fact, in Portugal, partial strikes have become more common since the
Recession to limit wage losses (Costa et al., 2015: 5). Also, on average, the Portuguese strike size
has increased, and, although this seems not to be the case in Spain, we should recall that several
large strikes have been excluded from the data since the Recession. In France, while the days-not-
worked rate during the Hollande presidency (further) declined, at least until 2013, no later data are
available. The French repertoire has altered as ‘strikes are getting more scattered, impromptu, and
shorter, and significantly, there is a rise in individual manifestations of conflict’ (Le Queux and
Sainsaulieu, 2010: 507). However, due to divisions between unions, a revival of social movement
unionism has hardly resulted in revitalizing the main characteristics of France’s industrial relations

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284 Transfer 22(3)

system so far. Furthermore, although more an exception than the rule, direct actions – such as
factory occupations and ‘cursing bosses’ – have hardly been signs of radicalization as they are
essentially defensive (Contrepois, 2013). Turning to Greece and Italy, although strike data are
lacking, they would probably show similarities with other southern countries since the Recession.
In Greece, besides occupations, anti-austerity protest shows a high degree of continuity with
previous protests: workers in the public sector in particular have been participating in strikes and
demonstrations, not least because the main confederation has its membership stronghold in that
sector (Rüdig and Karyotis, 2014). In Italy, demonstrations and political mass strikes have also
been prominent since the Recession, with public sector and general strikes being framed in terms of
workers’ and civil rights, respectively (Molina and Barranco, 2016). Simultaneously, the scope of
action of workers in so-called ‘essential public services’ are exceedingly curtailed by guaranteed
service provision during strike action and prior notification procedures to the Guarantee Commis-
sion: on average, the Commission succeeded in preventing more than 80 per cent of strikes in those
services in the period 2007–2014 (source:

Persistently low-strike countries

This group consists of Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland (on
the latter, see Rieger, 2016). Typically, general strikes are nearly absent in this country group as
they hardly belong to the repertoire; they are very singular events. Rather, contract bargaining
periods influence but do not determine the ‘strike rhythm’; they explain occasional peaks in
industrial conflict. Cross-national variation in days-not-worked rates highlights differences in
the dimension of bargaining units, ‘union-restricting workplace institutions’ (Gentile, 2015: 259)
and the strictness of peace obligation clauses contained in collective agreements. Where indus-
trial conflict – exceptionally – occurs, it tends to be large and long-lasting. Particularly in
Germany, indefinite strikes are mounting in the services sector, with strike tactics shifting
towards discontinuous, rolling walkouts, while today’s repertoire comprises flash mobs, rallies
and demonstrations (Bewernitz and Dribbusch, 2014). Nevertheless, the countries in this group
continue to show negligible levels of strike activity generating low days-not-worked rates
(except for Norway). In fact, strikes are almost waning in Sweden: they only account for one-
third of all industrial actions, although unions are still advancing a labour repertoire as boycotts
and solidarity actions are increasing (Lindberg, 2012). In 1997, a new agreement, covering most
of the manufacturing sector, made it difficult to use strikes as a bargaining tactic, which, later on,
also influenced public sector bargaining (Teague, 2009: 510–512). However, challenges such as
globalization, the EU internal market and the rise of extreme-right parties explain why the main
unions are slowly diversifying their action repertoire and cooperation with social movements is
burgeoning (Peterson et al., 2012).

A mixed country group

Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the UK and probably Belgium are all part of a mixed group with
various shapes fairly distinct from the country groups above. In Belgium, strikes are also associ-
ated with the bargaining cycle, but the interpretation of the agreements’ peace obligations is fairly
liberal. Public mass strikes, including two general strikes, significantly influence the country’s
strike pattern since the Recession. Anti-austerity/pro-democracy movements newly established by
citizens and civil society organizations, though split along communitarian lines, are buttressing the
unions in their anti-austerity protests and enriching them with a citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire.

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Vandaele 285

Tolerating wildcat strikes, Denmark is marked by many small strikes, a trend that began in the
1990s, although the high frequency is partly the result of changes in data collection (Birke, 2007).
The country is still at the top regarding strike frequency, but this has declined considerably,
whereas an almost four-week lock-out of teaching staff in the local government sector in 2013
has boosted the duration of industrial conflict. In Finland, strike activity is high and has increased,
whereas strikes tend to be shorter and smaller. The data do not yet include the general strike of
2015 opposing planned government labour market reforms.
In the UK, public sector strikes, involving large numbers of workers, are clearly in the ascendant
and explain the changed strike pattern (Lyddon, 2015). The predominance of such large-scale one-
off demonstrative strikes is reflected in the strong increase in strike size, whereas the average
duration has decreased. Over time, strike frequency and days-not-worked rates have declined
considerably and stabilized at a historical low. Questioning a trade-off relationship between strikes
and industrial action short of strikes, overtime bans, go-slows and works-to-rule have declined over
time (Kelly, 2015: 4–5). However, simultaneously a shift has developed in the repertoire towards
the civil rights domain: the proportion of strikes has been reduced alongside a corresponding
increase in labour demonstrations, a trend that has become even more pronounced since the
Recession (Bailey, 2013). Economic restructuring, hostile legislation since the Thatcher adminis-
tration of the 1980s, which has taken the strike weapon out of the hands of shop stewards, and
chastening defeats suffered by major unions all contribute to our understanding of repertoirial
adaptation (Joyce, 2015). The UK case illustrates especially that if workers’ legal-institutionalized
resources are strongly reduced, they move to a citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire based on labour
Apart from the higher average duration, Ireland shows a fairly similar strike pattern,
although without a notable increase of political mass strikes (at least outside the transport
sector). Irish governments aimed to move away from adversarial workplace attitudes and
turned to an institutionalization of conflict, consecrated in national social partnership agree-
ments from 1989 to 2009, fostering ‘new formal and informal approaches to addressing
industrial relations conflict’ (Teague, 2009: 507). Like the UK, Ireland saw direct actions
at the onset of the Recession; although in Ireland occupations have ‘been more used by
students and community campaigners as citizens than by workers as workers’ (Gall, 2013:
221). Public sector unions organized one of Ireland’s largest one-day strikes against the
bailout in 2010, but strike activity declined afterwards. This might change if the economy
recovers and workers demand higher wages.

De-industrialization and globalization affecting the labour repertoire

The empirical overview given above shows an almost general downward tendency in strike
frequency, albeit to different degrees across countries; Finland and the Netherlands are excep-
tions.6 While earlier theories suggest a pro-cyclical trend in frequency, with low inflation and
high unemployment dampening workers’ willingness to strike, other studies have emphasized
structural variables alluding to a higher frequency, either because of a decentralization of
collective bargaining, resulting in more opportunities for industrial conflict, or shifts in the
employment composition. The latter – the ‘tertiarisation of industrial conflict’ (Bordogna and

6 Looking at the period since 2010, strike frequency has declined in Finland and the Netherlands, but has
risen in Norway, Spain and Switzerland, compared with the previous five-year average.

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286 Transfer 22(3)

Table 2. Share of industry in employment and days-not-worked rates, averages 1995–2004 and 2005–2014.

Employment Days-not-worked rates

Southern Europe 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014

Portugal 38% 31% 55% 35%
Spain 33% 25% 50% 46%
Low-strike countries 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014
Germany 35% 30% 80% 25%
Netherlands 22% 17% 46% 29%
Norway 23% 21% 50% 36%
Mixed country group 1995–2004 2005–2014 1995–2004 2005–2014
Belgium 28% 24% 53% 52%
Denmark 26% 21% 67% 43%
Finland 29% 25% 43% 63%
Ireland 30% 22% 21% 38%
UK 25% 19% 19% 10%
Note: Industry includes mining and quarrying, electricity, gas and water, sewerage, waste management and
remediation activities and construction; employment in Finland and Norway excludes year 1995. Overestimated days-
not-worked share: Belgium (until 2002), Finland (2009–2014) and Portugal. Data partial or lacking: Austria, France,
Greece, Italy (2009–2014), Sweden (2009–2014) and Switzerland (2009–2014).
Sources: Employment: Eurostat; Days-not-worked rates: ETUI.

Cella, 2002) – assumes that strikes in the services sector are escalating, whereas strike-prone
unionized sectors have structurally declined over time, yielding an overall muted days-not-
worked rate. Although the calculation is only indicative, as the NACE classification was revised
in 2008, Table 2 displays a steady trend towards further de-industrialization of employment with
a corresponding decrease in the days-not-worked rate in industry in most countries. Days-not-
worked rates are below 33 per cent in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Germany’s rate in
industry is predominantly dependent on the strategy of IG Metall, which has turned to warning
strikes in the past decade, which are not measured in the official data. In the UK, as discussed
above, public sector strikes dominate the pattern. Still, in all other countries, with notable
country variation, the impact of the industrial sector strikes on the days-not-worked rate is still
sizeable, even in the past decade, pointing to the industrial unions’ reliance on a labour reper-
toire, although this might not exclude adaptation to this repertoire.
The arithmetic effect of shrinking manufacturing employment has not been the only structural
change in the economy that has reduced days-not-worked rates. Economic globalization increases
the ability of multinational corporations to use whipsawing techniques and makes their exit options
more credible even without any actual capital relocation or explicit threats (Dunn, 2015: 161–176).
Although mediated by labour market institutions (Brandl and Traxler, 2010), intensified compet-
itive pressures have probably altered how workers, especially in exposed sectors, engage in strike
action, leading to a ‘novel calculus’ (Scheuer, 2006) characterized by labour concessions and
quiescence. At the same time, multinational corporations’ brand consciousness offers opportuni-
ties for unions to launch comprehensive campaigns short of strikes for improving working condi-
tions (Lévesque and Murray, 2002). Moreover, whereas fragile just-in-time production and supply
chain systems offer potential levers for strategic strike action, this has been barely exploited to date
(Gall, 2014: 213–214), although the continuing Amazon campaign by Germany’s ver.di is a
notable exception in the services sector.

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Vandaele 287

Mixed repertoires in the private services sector?

In general, the occupational structure has been marked by ‘upgrading’: employment has
expanded much more rapidly in high-paid occupations than in low-paid ones over time (Oesch,
2015). As the average size of establishments tends to be smaller in the private services sector,
this upgrading implies a lower likelihood of unionization. Thus, other than de-unionization as
such, weakening workplace unionism can further explain the declining trend in strike activity
(Jansen, 2014). As mobilization theory highlights, workplace union activists are crucial in a
sequential process of framing: they help in identifying potential issues of conflict, making
workers aware of social injustice and attributing it to management; fostering group identifica-
tion; and defending strike action as an effective means of mitigating or undoing perceived social
injustice when the occasion arises (Buttigieg et al., 2008). Weakening workplace unionism might
be the result of inadequate union strategies, employers’ union-avoidance practices or anti-union
legislation or ongoing transformation in the organizing of work and employment. The lack of
union voice makes room for non-strike actions, often of a more individual character, for addres-
sing workplace conflict (Gall, 2014: 223–224). Assuming a trade-off relationship, the low strike
days-not-worked rate7 probably implies a corresponding increase of other forms and expressions
of individual or collective resistance to being treated as a commodity, whether in the workplace
or in the labour market (Hebdon and Noh, 2013). Indeed, Gall (2013: 217) provides a transna-
tional overview of non-strike actions in the private service sector considering them to be attempts
to generate ‘soft power’ and that they often involve ‘workers as citizens’ as much or more than
they do ‘workers as workers’.
Moving to low-paid occupations, workers’ associational and workplace bargaining power are
relatively low (Silver, 2003: 170–173). Does this imply that low-paid workers are moving
towards social movement tactics and alliance-building strategies? Linking new occupational
groups with a renovated collective action repertoire might be too general. Embedded in
country-specific production and welfare state regimes, occupational groups are heterogeneous
and develop unevenly and, hence, their relative size and importance differ across countries
(Hyman, 1978). Also, universalistic assertions are dubious because unions differ in terms of
their organizational legacies of strike behaviour and learning capabilities. In Greece and Italy,
for instance, unions representing precarious workers have moved towards a more diversified set
of actions and alliance-building with social movements, although demands are centred on labour
rights in the Greece case but not necessarily in Italy (Vogiatzoglou, 2015: 153–156). Further-
more, the importance of legal-institutional resources is illustrated by the UK ‘Justice for Clea-
ners’ campaign and a similar Dutch campaign. As labour rights are relatively unaffected in the
Netherlands, prolonged industrial action in the cleaning sector is clearly linked to collective
bargaining rounds, whereas strike actions are less central in the UK. Finally, a repertoire shift
should not be understood as a mechanical reaction to regime change: it is ‘contingent on net-
works of trust between the union’s leadership and the membership and . . . upon union leaders’
openness to outsiders and externally-connected insiders experienced with non-labor contention’
(Gentile and Tarrow, 2009: 489). Hence, a complementary qualitative approach is necessary: the
literature on community and social movement unionism and unions’ relationship with social
movements would be of particular relevance for understanding why workers successfully shift to
a citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire or not.

7 A lower days-not-worked rate might also be the result of strikes linked to smaller bargaining units or
average size of establishments.

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288 Transfer 22(3)


40% 39%


30% 29%
26% 26%

20% 19%
17% 17%
15% 15% 15% 15%
15% 13%
11% 11% 11% 11%


ly gal ain any and
s ay ede
d um ark lan
d UK
rtu Sp rm erl No
Sw zer lgi nm Fin Ire
Po Ge th it Be De
Ne Sw
Southern Europe Low-strike countries Mixed country group

1995−2004 2005−2014

Figure 3. Share of transport and logistics sector in number of days not worked, averages 1995–2004 and
Note: Overestimated: Belgium (until 2002), Finland (2009–2014) and Portugal. Data partial or lacking: Austria, France,
Greece, Italy (2009–2014), Sweden (2009–2014) and Switzerland (2009–2014).
Source: ETUI.

Finally, the transport and logistics sector, although close to the industry sector, is part of the
services sector and the development of its days-not-worked rates is different. Days-not-worked
rates are characterized by cross-country variation, but have also been increasing in most countries
(see Figure 3). This reflects a labour repertoire and relatively favourable and unaffected workplace
bargaining power stemming from transport systems’ centrality to transnational production net-
works (Silver, 2003: 97–103). Transport workers can generally use strikes more economically and
effectively. Even short strikes involving a relatively small number of strikers – for example, train
drivers, maritime pilots or air traffic controllers – can cause considerable disruption to distribution
and transport flows, which is not fully captured by conventional strike indicators. At the same time,
this disruptiveness might explain why the state continues to curb the right to strike, particularly in
transport, by providing for minimum or guaranteed services in so-called ‘essential services’.8 More
systematic analysis, focusing on transport subsectors, could examine whether this undermining of
labour rights entails an adaptation of the established labour repertoire or a shift to a citizens’ rights-
oriented repertoire. At least some of these transport unions take a more politicized approach and
have been opening up to cooperation with civil society, while still relying on a labour repertoire,

8 Other strategies for tackling disruption are technological innovation and increasing competitive pressures.

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Vandaele 289

although it is unclear whether such a ‘radical political unionism has a reasonable chance of
spreading into other sectors across Europe as an instrument of revitalization’ (McIlroy, 2012: 257).

The new protest cycle: addressing the state . . . and combining

Reclaiming urban public spaces, one of the most visible responses to the austerity regime, undoubt-
edly lay at the origin of the initial mobilization by anti-austerity/pro-democracy movements such as
Geração à Rasca, the Indignados, Amesi Dimokratia Tora! and Occupy in 2011.9 Those movements
have a younger and more educated constituency – those most affected by the Recession – and
participants are more likely to identify with the middle class (Peterson et al., 2015). Not only do
these movements differ from unions in terms of their socio-demographic composition and class
identification, but they have also been – at least initially – critical towards unions, accusing them of
not representing their demands and needs. This contested political legitimacy and declining trust in
the main unions in southern Europe has been the price they have paid for their original strategy of
political inclusion in co-managing the crisis (Hyman, 2015). However, besides workers’ grass-roots
resistance, unions have been central in the anti-austerity protest, adding an intergenerational dimen-
sion to it (Peterson et al., 2015). As most national governments in Europe are sacrificing the public
sector on the altar of fiscal orthodoxy, the prevalence of anti-austerity protest in this sector has,
unsurprisingly, clearly characterized the current cycle of social protest (Bermeo and Bartels, 2014).
Not that the locus of protest is novel: it is part of a long-term trend as such ‘public sector militancy’
emerged during the previous protest cycle of 1968–1974 (Hyman, 1978) and continued in the
following decades (Gall, 2013). Compared with the period 1995–2004, Figure 4 shows that the
share of – often large-scale – public sector strikes rose in the following five-year periods in most
countries for which disaggregated data are available. The interplay between adjustments in public
employment regimes and different modalities in the right to strike might contribute to a better
understanding of this variation in militancy.
Not only focusing on workers’ (vested) interests, but paying closer attention to civil rights issues has
been claimed to be a prior requirement for overcoming the divide between unions and anti-austerity/pro-
democracy movements and shifting towards social movement unionism (Köhler and Calleja Jiménez,
2015). Apart from possible learning processes, various dynamics could explain why unions might have
incentives for experimenting with a citizens’ rights–oriented repertoire. Thus, governments have seen
the Recession context as an opportunity for legislating away labour rights, for example, and there has
been a (further) de-institutionalization of collective bargaining, especially in crisis-hit countries (Schö-
mann, 2016). If the state is no longer upholding or is even hostile towards collective bargaining
structures, it narrows the opportunity structure for a labour repertoire. This also accounts for the
prosecution of strikers and the introduction of stricter strike regulations, against which unions have
increasingly been taking legal action: they have brought cases before national and international labour
courts and tribunals, but also before the European Court of Human Rights (Schömann, 2016). As
participants in anti-austerity/pro-democracy movements share the same discontent and left-leaning
political orientations as unionists (Peterson et al., 2015), there are opportunities for coalition-building
based on a citizens’ rights-oriented approach, particularly as European unions have been familiar with
such an approach in the past (Gentile, 2015). Also, a perceived low effectiveness of political mass strikes
by workers might further contribute to a more mixed repertoire involving worker–citizen alliances. And

9 The 2008 student protest in Italy with its slogan ‘Noi la vostra crisi non la paghiamo’ anticipated this.

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290 Transfer 22(3)




49% 50%
50% 47%

40% 38%
26% 25%
20% 19% 18% 18% 18%
16% 16%
15% 15%
13% 12% 13%
10% 9% 8% 8%

ly ain s
Ita Sp any and rw
ay ede
um ark lan
d UK
rm erl No Sw itze Be nm Fin Ire
Ge th De
Ne Sw
Southern Europe Low-strike countries Mixed country group

1995−2004 2005−2009 2010−2014

Figure 4. Share of public sector strikes, averages 1995–2004, 2005–2009 and 2010–2014.
Note: Public sector comprises public administration and defence, compulsory social security; education; and human health
services. Data partial or lacking: Austria, Belgium (until 2002), Finland (2009–2014), France, Greece, Italy (2009–2014),
Portugal and Sweden (2009–2014).
Source: ETUI.

as public mass strikes often go together with rallies and demonstrations, they probably lend themselves
better to a citizens’ rights-oriented framing than strikes in the realm of collective bargaining.
Nevertheless, whether unions have actually and effectively shifted towards a more mixed reper-
toire is an empirical question, which can only be hinted at here by reference to southern Europe. In
this part of Europe, there has undoubtedly been higher participation in demonstrations since the
Recession (Ancelovici, 2015: 191). Yet, the main Greek union confederation is experiencing dif-
ficulties connecting with anti-austerity/pro-democracy movements (Vogiatzoglou, 2015: 210–214).
Still, in Spain, unions have rediscovered ‘a protest model that transcends the representation of labour
interests and connects with civil society’ (González Begega and Luque Balbona, 2014: 97). The
Spanish repertoire has also featured performances beyond the traditional labour repertoire: union
members have become participants in large-scale demonstrations, such as the mareas ciudadanas
seeking to defend public workers’ labour rights and the users of services (Cristancho, 2015: 199–
202). Similarly, in Portugal there is a rising rapprochement between unions and anti-austerity/pro-
democracy movements (Accornero and Ramos Pinto, 2015; Costa et al., 2015). All in all, whether a
sustainable collective identity and framing can be built is still undecided as ‘divisions and potential
conflicts of interests according to class, gender and ethnicity’ require ‘sustained dialogue and
debate’ (Hyman, 2015: 118 and 119). Moreover, if political opportunity structures for unions
become more open again, ‘political unionism’ (Gentile, 2015) might return for promoting sustain-
able labour rights, whether or not in combination with other repertoires.

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Vandaele 291

Whereas any interpretation is dependent on the country selected and period studied, two general
observations, corroborating previous findings, can be made about strike developments over the
past 20 years. First, the level of strike activity has fallen further in almost all countries in western
Europe, resulting in a levelling off of aggregated days-not-worked rates. This should not be
mistaken for an absence of conflict in employment relations. But, in contrast to what the main-
stream press and media might generally report, even more than in the past, strike action today is
exceptional. With a view to explaining this ‘strike aridity’, the Swedish case points to a further
institutionalization of strikes; such a channelling of social conflict also holds true for the southern
European countries and Ireland before the Recession. Also, the strike decline mirrors the fall of
industrial unionism and, hence, the lesser prominence of a labour repertoire. In particular, multi-
national corporations’ whipsawing techniques might have a negative effect on industrial workers’
fairly strong marketplace bargaining and strike tactics, while the relocation of production plants
goes together with increased industrial conflict in the global South (Silver, 2003). Furthermore,
there will be a debilitating impact on future strike activity as a result of key strike defeats in union
stronghold sectors. Nevertheless, the labour repertoire is associated with the bargaining cycle in
those countries where the branch or sector is the dominant level for concluding collective agree-
ments and the threat of strike action might still be effective. This certainly also accounts for the
transport sector. At the same time, the labour repertoire does not exclude that the ‘institutionalized’
strike weapon may be immersed in a barrel containing a wider range of non-strike tactics and
actions for collective resistance. Probably the tertiarization of industrial conflict is only partially
expressed via a labour repertoire; it is certainly dominant in the transport and public sector – both
strongholds of unionism – but also curtailed by strict strike regulations. However, whether a
citizens’ rights-oriented collective action repertoire in the private services sector is developing
across Europe will depend on the specificities of the industrial relations system in each country.
The second general observation is that even though strike developments in specific sectors are
often similar, countries can still be categorized in terms of the dominant pattern of their strikes.
Apart from the varying employment composition of national economies, the incidence of general
strikes should certainly be taken into account here. While strike activity in southern Europe as such
was generally declining before the Recession, there has been an intensification of such strikes since
the expansion and deepening of austerity programmes. Outside southern Europe, such strikes are
less frequent and only occasionally disturb country-specific strike contours. However, compared
with the period 1995–2004, in most of the Germanic and Nordic countries for which data are
available, and unquestionably in the UK, public sector militancy, measured by its days-not-worked
share, has increased in the past decade. Further study is needed to examine whether the Recession
has been a critical juncture for unions in developing an enduring citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire
and whether such a repertoire finds a stable resonance within a changing party-political opportu-
nity structure. Both public sector and general strikes could offer new openings for layering a
citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire onto a labour repertoire. Even so, underlining unions’ lasting
capacity as mobilization machines, political mass strikes have been dominating today’s social
protest cycle and, given continuing adjustments in public employment regimes, it is very likely that
they are indeed ‘here to stay’. They are frequently well-organized one-day events, involving a
larger number of workers, bureaucratically organized and coordinated by unions. Rather than
economic conditions, it is primarily institutional factors linked to the austerity drive that are
influencing the timing, level and form of anti-austerity protest and strike actions. Those actions
have been mostly defensive in nature, aimed at seeking a direct political exchange with

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292 Transfer 22(3)

governments, although with limited success so far (Hyman, 2015), at least in terms of discernible
and immediate effects on austerity policies.
All of this is in stark contrast to the protest cycle of 1968–1974, when political unionism was in
its heyday in the advanced capitalist societies. Grass-roots-driven short strikes, at the factory level
in industry, with a mainly offensive character initially characterized that previous cycle and were
instrumental in strengthening corporatist arrangements (Dubois, 1978). However, there are also
historical parallels such as fears about social order and state strategies for suppressing strike
activity, which might further shape a repertoire favouring industrial action short of strikes or a
citizens’ rights-based one, or both. Another similarity is the critical attitude of certain occupational
groups towards unions. Whereas grass-roots criticism was largely internal to unions in the previous
protest cycle, today external criticism of the unions comes mostly from the younger and more
educated constituency of anti-austerity/pro-democracy movements, at least in southern Europe.
But the labour movement also outside this part of Europe is likely to face the task not only of
seeking to overcome a potential internal private sector–public sector divide, but also the challenge
of deploying a citizens’ rights-oriented repertoire for framing demands and alliance-building
strategies with anti-austerity/pro-democracy movements or community-based and social reform
organizations. Although more detailed country and sector-specific evidence is certainly needed, in
general it looks like there are increasing incentives for the labour movement as a whole to
experiment progressively with combining a labour repertoire with a citizens’ rights-oriented
repertoire for supplementing labour rights. Whether unions could really do this is an empirical
question of aspiration and ability.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.

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