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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

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.
liberaliser
Oct. 6th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
One of my students was prevented by picketers from entering a supermarket to buy food this morning. Luckily there was another just around the corner.

Go, Belgian trade unionists! I bet their bold militancy has OPEC quaking in their sandals.
blonde222
Oct. 6th, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC)
I met a totally fab guy at conference: a gay Flemish-speaking Hayek-worshipping Eurosceptic who's renounced his Belgian nationality and is running for the European Parliament on a self-destruct ticket. Have a feeling you guys would get on great...

Meanwhile I have fallen separately and desperately in love with a non-gay French speaking Belgian football fan.

Belgium is the place of the hour, and no mistake....

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