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General strike

Today there is a general strike in Belgium in protest against inflation, demanding that the government do something or other about it in this month's federal budget.

Being a child of the Thatcher era, who witnessed the taming of the unions in the UK, this seems to me extraordinary. While I support anyone's right to join a trade union and to go on strike to improve their circumstances of employment, I don't believe that the unions should be allowed to call a strike over an issue that doesn't particularly concern their relations with their employers. The people inconvenienced by today's strike are, on the whole, not those responsible for the recent increase in the prices of food and fuel; indeed, very few of the latter reside in Belgium, so the strike completely misses its ostensible targets.

As you know, Bob, Belgium has not only Socialist trade unions, but also Christian and Liberal unions, each organised into a separate national federation. Aha, you are perhaps thinking, the strike today is presumably called by one or two of the three sets of unions at least partly in protest against their rivals being more closely linked to the government. Well, no. First of all, the current government includes the Liberal, Christian and (Francophone) Socialist parties (the Flemish Socialists are in disarray). Second, all three national federations are supporting the strike. So the federations essentially appear to be striking against their own political allies in the government.

Or are they? I think this is really a manifestation of the cosy, collusive nature of Belgian politics. One or both Socialist parties have been in government solidly since May 1988, indeed for two-thirds of the last half-century; in that same time frame the Christian Democrats have been in government for all but the eight years of Verhofstadt's premiership. In a political system where you can't really vote the bastards out, indeed where layers of government proliferate so that a party, and a party leader, who lose one election can pop up again almost immediately elsewhere, the occasional general strike may be a useful safety valve to fool the workers into believing that they have more impact on the system than they really do. Of course it infuriates those of us from the ranks of the self-employed and small businesses, for whom today's action has no obvious benefit and for whom it causes immense and (what seems to us) avoidable inconvenience. But the system has other ways of buying our allegiance.

Edited to add: I am fundamentally hostile to the idea of a general strike bringing down the entire system of government, for reasons local to my birthplace.

Comments

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
sammywol
Oct. 6th, 2008 07:29 am (UTC)
Goodness me! How very early C20 of them! ... Willing to bet it won't actually have any effect but do let us know if i am wrong about that as it would be very, very interesting.
(Deleted comment)
nwhyte
Oct. 6th, 2008 07:55 am (UTC)
Probably significant that the 1960-61 strike came at the end of one of the rare periods when the Socialists were out of power. Of course, the law they were protesting against was passed anyway, but the most obvious effect of the strike was to bring the Socialist parties back into government.
wwhyte
Oct. 6th, 2008 11:01 am (UTC)
I also don't understand what strikes against inflation are meant to accomplish. Most governments are pretty keen on fighting inflation anyway, and the short-term tactics against inflation are likely to cause even more pain to people on low incomes than inflation itself does.
raycun
Oct. 6th, 2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
the reasons are probably down to the make-up of the union leadership
but 'inflation' is a poor target for trades unionists. A strike for higher wages (and for increases for those on fixed incomes), sure, makes sense. But inflation is a good thing if you're in debt, which most union members (and many of the people they're in solidarity with) probably are
inuitmonster
Oct. 7th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)
Re: the reasons are probably down to the make-up of the union leadership
eh, inflation is great if you are in debt and have an index linked income, but for everyone else it's pretty suckass... even the most indebted person will be bit perturbed as their ability to put food on the table disappears. And given that we are now looking at stagflation, a lot more trade unionists are probably going to find themselves on fixed incomes before they know where they are.
blonde222
Oct. 6th, 2008 12:22 pm (UTC)
I have some questions:

1) is it only public sector workers on strike, or everyone? (inc workers at multinationals etc?)

2) are you working today? Is the EU working today?

3) have you ever been to Liege or Verviers? what are they like?

4) in the Belgian football league, is it three points for a win?
nwhyte
Oct. 6th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC)
1) All the unions have called on all their members to strike. So it's not just the public sector; on my way in I saw a picket at a factory.

2) Yes, I'm working today - and the EU is as far as they can get to work, but of course a lot of people depend on public transport so won't be in.

3) I've been through and briefly to Liège (my usual train home goes there after leaving me at Leuven). It's a declining industry city with a certain amount of cultural pretension as the centre of its part of the country; I'm sure you can think of English equivalents! I haven't been to Verviers but I understand it is more on the declining industry side.

4) Yes; and they're cutting down from 18 to 16 teams this year, so the relegation battles will be particularly nasty.
(no subject) - liberaliser - Oct. 6th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blonde222 - Oct. 6th, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
pnh
Oct. 6th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC)
"I don't believe that the unions should be allowed to call a strike over an issue that doesn't particularly concern their relations with their employers"

And I don't believe that Rupert Murdoch should be allowed to exercise influence over issues that don't particularly concern the selling and distribution of his books and periodicals. I'd also like a pony. The fact is that in Murdoch's case, we assume the rule is that everything not forbidden is acceptable--whereas unions get spoken of as if it's understood that we tolerate only those actions which are explicitly allowed.

Of course unions can do wicked things, as can corporations, or any combination of human effort. And when unions take actions that hurt innocent bystanders, those actions may reasonably be criticized. (Thus my sympathy with your current irritation.) But to interrogate union actions according to a (highly debatable!) standard of what does and doesn't specifically "concern their relations with their employers" is to hold them to a standard to which other combinations are not subjected. In effect, the message is "we will allow the lower orders to organize, so long as they don't get above themselves."
nwhyte
Oct. 6th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
I think it is entirely fair (and indeed normal) to interrogate the actions of combinations as to whether they are carrying out the purpose for which they were intended. That's why voluntary organisations which want to get recognition from government authorities have to declare their aims and objectives, in any country, whatever socio-economic stratum their members are drawn from - particularly of they claim some form of representation of their membership. The fact is that unions sometimes (as in Belgium, today) do get above themselves. And I have my suspicions, as ticking_fool does from his rather different perspective, that today's action is essentially a con being run by (a part of) the ruling elite against the rest of us.

The question of whether Murdoch is behaving as an individual or a combination is surely not very relevant?
(no subject) - liberaliser - Oct. 6th, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - raycun - Oct. 6th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - liberaliser - Oct. 6th, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - raycun - Oct. 6th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - liberaliser - Oct. 6th, 2008 10:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Oct. 7th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - raycun - Oct. 7th, 2008 07:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Oct. 7th, 2008 07:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - raycun - Oct. 7th, 2008 09:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Oct. 7th, 2008 10:43 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - raycun - Oct. 7th, 2008 11:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - raycun - Oct. 7th, 2008 11:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - yea_mon - Oct. 7th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - inuitmonster - Oct. 7th, 2008 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
inuitmonster
Oct. 6th, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
I am fundamentally hostile to the idea of a general strike bringing down the entire system of government, for reasons local to my birthplace.

Isn't this a bit of a generalisation from one extreme case? Just because one system of government you liked was once brought down by a general strike does not mean that it could never happen that an egregious system of government can never best be brought down by one.
nwhyte
Oct. 7th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
I don't see how 1974 is an "extreme case" of a general strike, except in so far as it actually worked!

But if you can find me an example of a general strike which had a positive outcome in a Western democracy in the last fifty years, ie where a) the strikers won and b) this was a Good Thing, then I will reconsider my prejudice. (Indeed, I shall be interested to hear of positive outcomes from general strikes elsewhere.)
(no subject) - inuitmonster - Oct. 7th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
applez
Oct. 7th, 2008 12:24 am (UTC)
Solidarity?
I don't believe that the unions should be allowed to call a strike over an issue that doesn't particularly concern their relations with their employers.

Unfortunately, rightly or wrongly, bifurcated or isolated labor action is the thin end of the wedge that ultimately shatters solidarity - look what it did to my country.
nwhyte
Oct. 7th, 2008 07:08 am (UTC)
Re: Solidarity?
Well, I think calling pointless strikes may also be a bad thing for solidarity - certainly that was a crucial part of the success of Thatcher against the unions - that the latter over-reached themselves.
Re: Solidarity? - pwilkinson - Oct. 7th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
pvaneynd
Oct. 7th, 2008 03:36 am (UTC)
We worked yesterday, but due to the public transport strike and blocking of some roads some people arrived 3 hours late at work yesterday.

I feel a little uncertain about giving political comments to somebody who actually seems to take notice of Belgian politics, unlike me, but I've always thought that the political parties made it pretty clear over the last few years that they are not 'tied' to their unions.

I remember the socialist unions attacking the socialist party for instance in one of their conferences.

To me they are just in different layers of an onion and are already placing themselves for the next elections where the union people want to see their people elected in the political parties so that they get more influence on the party line.

Oh and the strikes: stupid and futile. It would have been much better if they would have done a 'pay strike' where you would not have to pay for their services. Of course that would not be as impacting so they would 'lose' media attention. Too bad that the whole 'Fortis' affair robbed them of their 'first item on the news' spot :-).
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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