Trends in European Labor Union Membership

Apr 12, 2012 | 17:08 GMT

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In the first quarter of 2012, labor unions in Spain and Portugal failed to influence their governments as the two countries reformed labor laws. In January, the Portuguese government succeeded in dividing the unions and passing labor reforms without major setbacks. In Spain, unions were able to unite and protest labor reform on March 29. However, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government passed the labor reform without having to introduce substantial changes in the text, since Spanish unions are particularly weak — accounting for only 16 percent of the active labor force. While these recent events show that unions have lost power, they are only part of a long-term phenomenon: union membership across Europe has declined steadily in the past four decades. To a certain extent, Italy is an exception to the European trend of weakening unions, as union membership only fell from 50 percent of the active labor force in 1976 to 30 percent in 2011, less than half of Portugal's decrease in union membership and still a higher percentage than most other Western European countries. With their powerful political presence, Italian unions oppose substantial changes to social legislation and push for a bigger welfare state, necessarily clashing with any government that is trying to cut spending.