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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.


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."
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?
Oct. 6th, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC)
My impression is that Belgian voters have got the ruling elite they deserve.
Oct. 6th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
If the members have decided that this is something they want the organisation to pursue, where's your standing for questioning that?
Oct. 6th, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC)
Did the members decide this? I'd be a little surprised to learn that all these unions have conducted polls.

I question it because it's pointless and destructive, but Nicholas may have a better reason.
Oct. 6th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
If they had, would that remove your objection? (Or if they had all followed some other set of reasonably democratic procedures to decide on this action?)
Oct. 6th, 2008 10:00 pm (UTC)
No, it wouldn't remove my objection (although it might perhaps call some of Nicholas' criticisms into question). My main objection is that it's pointless and destructive.

If a group of people democratically decide among themselves to blackmail, intimidate or otherwise harrass their compatriots, or their politicians, I don't think that's very democratic at all. I can think of situations where a general strike might be the right thing to do, but I certainly don't see how this is one of them.

Limited strikes, of course, are a different matter altogether. There was a public transport strike in Brussels not so long ago calling for better security measures, which I wholeheartedly endorsed, even though it was just as disruptive for me personally. But this one was just plain silly.
Oct. 7th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
If the organisation has been set up for a particular purpose, and has gained political status and tax breaks on that basis, then no, it and its members do not have unlimited discretion to use it to follow whatever political project they want!

(And even if they did, I would certainly have the standing to comment that a particular policy, strategy or tactic was a stupid idea. Freedom of speech, me lad.)

Of course, as liberaliser points out, your question is irrelevant here, as the members were not asked.
Oct. 7th, 2008 07:45 am (UTC)
The unions didn't gain tax breaks or political status because the government in power thought "oh, what a nice set of aims and principles, we should support that!". They got those things - particularly the political status - because they were able to demand them. To go back to Ireland, the political status of Sinn Fein and the IRA, and the fact that the British government negotiated with them, was because they were powerful organisations that the government could not ignore, not because the government liked the way they stuck to their founding principles.
The ability to call a strike - in a particular workplace or a general strike - is exactly the source of the union's power.

Did liberaliser point out that the members weren't asked? I don't see it above. Besides, the union rules may allow strikes to be called without a poll, provided certain conditions were met. If those rules were decided democratically, it amounts to the same thing.

(You can complain all you want, naturally. You can also complain about the decor in my office, if you like)
Oct. 7th, 2008 07:59 am (UTC)
I think the Shinners are a particularly poor example of militant action leading to success. Their participation in the negotiations was predicated on their electoral mandate, just like all the other political parties, and not on their tactics; indeed, they were excluded from the talks as long as the armed struggle continued. And what result did they get? Essentially the same deal that was on the table in 1973, with a few additional bits and pieces to do with the succeeding quarter-century of senseless killing. Was it worth it?

One of the saner Thatcher reforms was precisely to require a members' ballot before a strike could be called.

I don't care about your office; I do care about my life not being disrupted for frivolous reasons.
Oct. 7th, 2008 09:21 am (UTC)
They were excluded from _official_ talks, but negotiations with the IRA were going on long before they called a ceasefire. I'm not saying it was good that they had political power, or that the Ulster strike was effective, but they had, and it was. Because they had members who supported their goals and took action in support of those goals, not because the government decided those goals were legitimate.

Do you think a country's parliament should be able to declare war without calling a referendum?
Oct. 7th, 2008 10:43 am (UTC)
As so often, Ray, I'm no longer sure what you are arguing about. This part of the discussion began when you questioned my standing to criticise the unions' action (not that that had deterred you yourself from criticising it a few hours earlier).

Then you asked whether unions or (unspecified other) organisations have the right to do whatever their members want. Clearly the answer is no.

Now you are telling me what happened at the Northern Ireland talks. I was there, and you weren't.

I'm not a fan of referendums, by the way; parliaments are there to make decisions.

Oct. 7th, 2008 11:22 am (UTC)
I'm just being argumentative. :)

But, while I think you're free to make whatever argument you want, the argument that "what an organisation was originally set up to do" outweighs "what the membership of an organisation want to do now" seems very weak (and in this case, there isn't a huge distinction between the two anyway). You seem to suggesting that the first has priority because that is what the government has approved, and that is the basis for the government's recognition, while I think the basis for the government recognition is a membership actively pursuing some goal - which makes the second more important.

I wasn't talking about the Northern Ireland talks, I was referring to the secret meetings between representatives of the British government and the IRA. My point being that although the government denied the legitimacy of the IRA's actions and aims, it had to recognise the reality that they represented.

The final point, obviously, is that you support the right of parliament to declare war on behalf of the people, but think the only legitimate way of calling a strike is to ballot the members. Which seems backwards.
Oct. 7th, 2008 11:23 am (UTC)
we seem to do this every year, don't we?
(no subject) - yea_mon - Oct. 7th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 7th, 2008 09:24 pm (UTC)
just on Sinn Féin, whatever about the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, afterward they seemed to carry far greater clout than their electoral mandate would otherwise have suggested. A lot of this seemed to be down to the implied threat that if they got really fed up with the peace process then their pals might go back to militancy.

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