Unions mostly silent in Europe

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MARCO WERMAN: Seriously though, as unemployment rises, you'd expect labor unions to voice the need to protect jobs. Well, in Europe, unions have been kind of quiet lately. The World's Gerry Hadden explains why.

GERRY HADDEN: This month, the Spanish government announced that unemployment had reached 13 percent. That's the highest in the European Union. Days later in Barcelona, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets. But these Spaniards were not protesting the job losses; they were marching against the war in Gaza. That citizens would direct their rage at a distant war while ignoring the worst economic crisis since World War II at home speaks, in part, to the weakness of Spain's labor unions. Across Europe, unions have been notably quiet. John Monks is with the European Trade Union Federation, which represents millions of workers from Spain to Greece. He says unions have become trapped by their hard-earned successes.

JOHN MONKS: Because of these rather good welfare states in many of the countries, you've got a kind of automatic stabilizer. If you fall out of work, you do get a reasonable income, you do get your healthcare paid, you do get benefits and so on.

HADDEN: With perks like that, unions are reluctant to go after management. Ava Granados is a spokeswoman for one of Spain's biggest labor unions called UGT. Granados says unions face an even bigger obstacle fighting rising unemployment. �The enemy,� she says, �is no longer your boss down the hall. It's an entire economic system.� �Who do you protest against?� she asks. �Who do you fight against when the crisis is global? We're still not planning any general strikes in this crisis because it's unclear who would benefit, given that many companies are in trouble and for many different reasons.� Granados says in this crisis, workers and companies alike are suffering. The next likely target of union wrath would be politicians, but so far, they've gone unscathed because lately, they've been doing what unions want, says John Monks � backing public works programs designed to employ millions of laborers. Monks says at least for the time being, European leaders are all behaving like socialists.

MONKS: Governments have been responsive. To be fair, whether it's Merkel or Sarkozy or Brown, they are sort of trying to do the right thing. It's not that there's a massively different changing in agenda. There's an agenda that says do more.

HADDEN: But public discontent can't be held in check forever, especially with the daily doses of bad economic news. Today, the International Labor Organization predicted that 51 million more jobs will disappear in 2009 worldwide. Now, pent-up frustration is about to spill over. That's French President Nicolas Sarkozy on TV last night. He was trying to ease tensions on the eve of a massive national strike. Tomorrow, trains and planes will stand idle. Schools will shut. Millions of Frenchmen are expected to flood city streets demanding job protection. Polls suggest more than two-thirds of French citizens support the strike. That's a first under Sarkozy, even as he sought to reform France's much-loved welfare state. If the French strike is successful, unions across Europe could see it as a wake-up call to take to the streets themselves. For The World, I'm Gerry Hadden.