In the new reality, workers have been forced to accept salary freezes, decreased hours, postponed retirements and health-care reductions. Employees at Fiat’s historic Mirafiori plant in Turin, rolling back a tradition of union privileges, even pledged to cut back on the number of workers who call in sick when the local soccer team has a match.
Unlike in the United States, where conservatives are so resolved to cut spending that they threatened a government shutdown, Western Europe’s generous welfare programs had generally been embraced by the right as well as the left. Against that background, the new wave of cutbacks seems to signal a dramatic shift in attitude toward benefits that many Europeans had come to see as a birthright and that politicians of any stripe could challenge only at the risk of their careers.
Many Europeans, particularly in left-wing political parties and labor unions, have interpreted the new winds as a triumph for ruthless free-market extremists who want to protect private wealth from higher taxes and as an aberration that can be undone by electing governments that are more worker-friendly. But many others, resigned to the new reality of globalization, have come to view the shift as the end of a golden era, perhaps never to be revived.
The social welfare system no longer plays its role, said Claude Bernard, a union organizer at Renault’s struggling car factory in Sandouville, a suburb of Le Havre in western France. The very system of redistributing wealth through taxes and welfare programs has been called into question.
In a measure of the shift, Manuel Valls, a presidential hopeful in France’s Socialist Party, challenged party doctrine recently by declaring that it should not make an issue of preserving the 35-hour workweek if French factories have to compete with Chinese factories where the workweek starts at 60 hours and goes up from there. In Denmark, Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen rattled many in that icon of Scandinavian cradle-to-grave welfare by suggesting Danes should work longer before retiring, to peel back the deficit by $2.8 billion.
Britain’s Conservative-led government decided in the fall to attack deficits by cutting more than $130 billion over the next five years, hitting welfare benefits hard and setting off protests by raising university fees.
But deficit pressures have forced leftist governments to seek savings as well. Some of the most painful cuts — pensions reduced, wages stalled and retirements pushed back — have been imposed by two Socialist prime ministers, George Papandreou in Greece and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Spain.