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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

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.
pwilkinson
Oct. 7th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Solidarity?
Comparing Britain before and after the Thatcherite legislation, I rather agree with both of you.

During the first years of the Thatcher government, the Trades Union Congress called quite a few "days of action" - one-day strikes with associated mass demonstrations against government policy. In practice, strike action was very patchy and numbers on the demonstrations could be ridiculously small (I was a student in Bristol at the time and one, which was meant to cover the whole of Bristol and which I went to on an only slightly extended lunch break, attracted perhaps 30 people). This did not exactly encourage general opposition to Thatcher's policies on industrial relations.

However, within a few years, strikes with an indirect but obvious relationship to an employee's working conditions (for instance, implementation of company policy elsewhere in a company which would have a definite impact on the worker concerned when extended to his immediate area) were standardly being declared illegal - and even some strikes about people's own working conditions because they were formally employed by contractors but the working conditions were determined by the contracting company.

Though, from a distance, the Belgian general strike does seem to come rather closer to the first of these situations than the second.

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