~ Frederic Sautet ~
No, this is not a picture of a state-owned grocery store in a former Soviet country. This is a grocery store in France. I took the picture myself, as it happens that I was in France during a national strike action last week (and there is another one scheduled for next week). The strike took place mostly in the public sector, but many private companies were also affected. Indeed, it was the first time I saw a strike disrupting, to such an extent, the supplies of a (privately-owned) grocery store, so I wanted to share this. As I am writing these lines, the strike is still going on. I had forgotten how wonderful life can be when France gets all wrapped up in social conflicts. The French are so used to it that they don't even realize that life could be different.
Strike actions are more common in Europe than in the US. In the US, some jurisdictions even prohibit strikes by public employees. This is now also enacted in Europe, but it has been difficult to implement. The economics of striking has mostly to do with incentives. Western economies often provide generous laws for strikers, which reduce the cost of going on strike (such as an expectation that the days of strike will be paid). When incentives change, strike action also changes. NZ is a case in point. In the early 1980s, according to Stat NZ, there were more than 500 days a month lost in labor strikes (up to a million person days of work lost). This number has since then gone down to around 50 (less than 10,000 person days of work lost). With the various reforms, especially the Employment Contracts Act of 1991, the NZ labor market became more fluid, unemployment went down, and the cost of striking increased. When living in NZ, one forgets that pre-1990s, the country was constantly threatened by strikes, the way France (and others) are now (and have been for a long time).
In addition to incentives, there may also be cultural issues. In France it is not rare to find the public in favor of strikers in opinion polls (even when it makes everyone’s life more difficult). Opinion polls have their limitations, but if there weren’t an attitude in favor of strikers, it would be harder to go on strike. Many see the right to strike as a sacred right given to workers and employees, on par with voting or freedom of speech. For instance, the abrogation of Le Chapelier Law in 1864, which reinstated the right to strike, is seen as one of the most important social victories in France. But again, a change in overall incentives would probably eventually affect the cultural attitudes towards striking (even in France).