This summer, hordes of vacationers are traveling in Europe?or trying to?and, along with sampling local cuisines and cultures, many will have firsthand experience of a particularly aggravating seasonal ritual: the rash of strikes by European transport and transit unions, called for the summer months so that they may most discomfit the highest number of innocent victims. Railway workers one day, bus drivers the next, then subway conductors, funicular men, cabbies. They all have unions, and they all seem to delight in ruining, or at least lessening the enjoyment of, other people's holidays.
This is a far cry from West Virginia miners or Henry Ford's line workers organizing against rapacious owners. This is petty muscle-flexing in which corrupt union officers seek to embarrass corrupt government bureaucrats, and the only people directly affected are the innocent bystanders. Europeans take it all in stride; after all, their own unions may call them out to the street next week. For American visitors it can be a bracing reminder of why the United States, with its vast distances and an ethos of the inalienable right to freedom of movement, has historically been tough in restricting the use of such tactics.
Two weeks ago in Italy, the long-haul truckers' union called a weeklong strike, blocking some heavily used highway entrances and effectively cutting off supplies of produce, milk and?most importantly?gasoline to the entire nation. It was a show of strength meant to hasten agreement in the union's negotiations with the government; predictably, the only people affected were unwitting tourists, and working families in the south of Italy, where the gas stations were the first to run out of fuel.
Last week, French air traffic controllers pulled a one-day strike, freezing air travel into, out of or even through French air space for 24 hours, with a ripple effect of canceled flights and wrecked travel arrangements that stretched around the globe in the following week. The reason? They're upset about plans to fold all air traffic control into a European Union-wide system, and wanted the French government to know it. Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac, no Ronald Reagan, was in Germany, urging his good German neighbors to join France in taking an EU leadership role. Elsewhere in France, antiglobalists were protesting the presence of McDonald's on hallowed French soil. The world has come to a funny pass when the French are embracing the Germans, who made war on them three times in 75 years, invading them twice, while rejecting the culture of the Americans who rescued them.
It's true that while stress levels skyrocket and precious vacation days are wasted because of these petty union actions, no traveler is really harmed; it was during the same week, remember, that backpackers burned to death in Australia, swimmers were attacked by sharks in Florida and some visitors to Disney World found themselves in the midst of a hostage situation. Maybe it's enough to hope that when those French controllers go on their extended European-style holidays this August some of them come here, stray into Central Park at the wrong hour and get a taste of how New Yorkers can really screw up your vacation.