Belgium is in the midst of a crippling 24-hour national strike, stopping all flights into and out of the country, bringing public transportation to a halt, and leading to protests and blockades outside factories. The strike began at 10:00 PM on Tuesday, organized by Belgium’s three main workers’ unions with nearly four million members. They’re also joined by government workers across the country, prompting the temporary closure of several public schools, nurseries, breweries, and sports facilities. Since prison guards have also gone on strike, they are being replaced by police officers in most prisons.
Robert Verteneuil, president of the General Federation of Belgian Labor, explained the strike’s objectives on public radio Wednesday morning. “What we want,” he said, “is to tell employers, whoever they are, that we’re sick of them putting all the dough that we create in their pockets. It’s time to give some of it back to the workers.” The chief cause of the strike is workers protesting slow pay raises, which are limited to 0.8 percent over the next year.
Limits for pay and working conditions in Belgium are typically negotiated each year by workers’ unions and business groups. The government then translates those negotiations into actual policy. This year, negotiations hit a snag when workers rejected the employers’ proposed 0.8 percent maximum pay raise.
It’s unclear whether the strike will result in policy change, but its effects are being felt all across Belgium. Striking air traffic controllers led to the cancellation of over 400 flights since Tuesday night and a virtual shutdown of the country’s airspace. Hundreds of supermarkets have closed due to understaffing, half the country’s trains were canceled, and over 30 ships were stranded offshore in Antwerp, waiting to enter port, because of striking dock workers. When all is said and done, the strike is expected to cost the Belgian economy tens of millions of euros.
Verteneuil believes workers “who produce the economy, who allow wealth to be created … those workers need to get their fair share. Without workers around machines and in the offices, the economy doesn’t work; that’s today’s message.”
H/T: The New York Times