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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Toute la Belgique paralysée par les grèves

by Françoise Germain-Robin

All of Belgium Paralyzed by Strikes

Translated Thursday 23 October 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Brussels. Reflecting labor anger, the mobilization for purchasing power, called by a trade union common front, attracted a massive following throughout Belgium on October 6.

By our special correspondent.

The workers of Belgium gave a very serious warning to the Leterme government and the bosses on Monday, Oct. 6. Although the trade unions, united in a common front, had not called for a general strike, the country was almost totally paralyzed. The transport sector was hit hardest, with all trains coming to a halt, including the Thalys and the Eurostar. The Brussels-Midi, Brussels-Central and Liège train stations were even shut down and the platforms deserted. Only the empty escalators were running.

A revolt for purchasing power.

The strike was also 100% effective on the bus and tram lines in Wallonia and Brussels and was highly effective in Flanders. “We know that our strike causes problems for the user, but people understand that we’re also fighting for them, because if we don’t do anything, the future of this country doesn’t look bright,” explained a bus driver manning a picket line at the STIB bus depot in Brussels. In the education sector, many schools were closed not only in Wallonia and Brussels but also in Ghent. In the schools that were open, some striking teachers chose to explain the reasons for this day of action to their pupils, and what was meant by the demand for an increase in purchasing power put forward by the General Federation of Workers of Belgium (FGTB), the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC) and the Liberal General Confederation of Belgium (CGLB), the country’s three big union confederations.

The strike was also very strong at many private-sector companies, and notably in the metallurgical industry. At the Caterpillar factory, where jobs are threatened, Jérôme, a young worker, explained: “With a monthly salary of 1200 euros to support my family, we no longer have the means to pay for the slightest treat.” His workmate, Alain, 51, said he “couldn’t manage any more, either, despite my seniority.” “We’re forced to go on, despite these indecent salaries, we haven’t got any choice,” he added.

All of the workers are furious at the leaders of the Federation of Companies of Belgium (FEB) which has accused the trade unions of irresponsibility in launching a strike while the country is shaken by serious financial and banking problems. “It’s the bosses that are irresponsible in demanding a wage freeze at a time like this,” said Marc Beckers of the CSC trade union. “The bosses have been under warning for a year that the anger of the workers has been rising. And they haven’t done a thing.”

Money for the workers.

Workers are also angry at the government. “Instead of busying themselves with communitarian quarrels [i.e. between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking communities] and bailing out the banks, it would do better to take care of the workers. Why is it that the government can never find any money for us?” asked Pino de Franco, a striker at Caterpillar.

Anne Demelenne, the general secretary of the FGTB union, entirely agrees: “If the government has been able to find money to save the financial sector, it ought to be able to find money for purchasing power. It is responsible and reasonable to demand that it do so, because it’s our purchasing power that keeps the economy going. If the small and medium businesses are going bankrupt, it’s also because people no longer have the means to buy. The warning is strong and clear: the government must listen and take it into account in the budget that it is preparing for October 14. If they don’t answer us, the mobilization will continue, and even more powerfully.”

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