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As history books tell us, labor unions came into being to counterbalance the overwhelming power of employers by organizing individual workers into a united force. The source of labor’s power stems largely from workers’ right to strike, which seemingly should force employers to address some of their demands. But what happens when labor strikes, and nobody cares?

Statue of Aristotle, Stagira, Chalkidiki, Macedonia, GreeceThat’s the question facing unions and labor organizations protesting the painful effects of the austerity measures taking place in many European nations. In these countries, the austerity measures imposed by international funding bodies demand drastic cuts in public services, public works jobs, and other forms of public support, in an attempt to stave off national bankruptcy. Workers protesting these outcomes sadly have become just another feature of the local landscape. In Greece, the country perhaps hardest hit by the modern economic crisis, labor leaders have called 29 general strikes since the start of the global collapse, asking every worker in the country to strike in solidarity.

But unemployment rates that remain higher than 25 percent, as continues to be the case in Greece and Spain, with Portugal not far behind, pit “idealism against harsh economic reality.” Workers who strike in solidarity with the unions are not all union members, which means that they run the real risk of losing their jobs. Small business owners who may believe in labor’s cause find that closing for the day leaves them precariously close to failure. In addition, the strikes appear to be having little effect on government policy. Government officials point to the mandate received from international bodies to protest there is nothing else they can do.

Part of the loss of strike power also might be due to dwindling union participation—another victim of the economic crisis. Downward trends in Spain leave less than 17 percent of the working population unionized, often because even those who have jobs cannot afford the required union fees. The different unions also express some contention about the best way to respond to austerity measures. If the government is nearly broke, one union leader reasoned, “We see little room for big changes.”

Source: Matt Moffett, Ilan Brat, and Patricia Kowsmann, “Big Europe Strikes Have Little Effect,” The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2012