Friday, October 28, 2005
Strike one… strike two…
Belgium has come to a standstill for the second time in a couple of weeks because of a general strike. The Christian (ACV/CSC) and the Socialist (ABVV/FGTB) trade unions organised the strike to protest against the federal government’s ‘Generation Pact’. For months, the government, the trade unions and the employers’ organisations have been negotiating this pact, and basically they agree on most of it. But the two largest trade unions are not content with a number of ‘details’ as they call it themselves. Why they have to block the whole country because of a few details is completely beyond me. Although I’m a member of one of the trade unions and although I followed the news the last week trying to find out what this was all about, I’m still in the blue of the why of this nation-wide protest.
The Generation Pact is necessary because the number of people working is too low here. Youth unemployment is high, unemployment rates within immigrant communities are soaring and people stop working too early. It’s that last point where the angle stings: when companies get in trouble, they often send their older employees and workers on early retirement. This policy is often even supported by government officials. But because more and more people have to retire – often beyond their will – at the age of 58 instead of 65, this convenient technique is costing the social security system a lot of money. On top of this, there is an important demographic factor. The Belgian population is ageing, we had a baby boom just after the second World War, but from the late 60’s on, the number of children born declined sharply. So now the baby-boomers are retiring, but there aren’t enough ‘young’ people working and paying taxes to pay for their pensions. So measures need to be taken, and that’s were the Generation Pact steps in.
My feeling is that there’s another factor here. The trade unions saw their popularity drop significantly in recent times. Belgium used to have a quite unique system, in which political parties, trade unions, insurance companies, schools, etc. of a same ‘philosophical’ background would work very closely together and form a power block, or a ‘pillar’ as we call them here. If you were born in a catholic family for instance, you would go to a catholic school, be in a catholic sports club, go to church (obviously) and as a grown up you’d join the catholic trade union or the catholic employers organisation, get insured by the catholic insurances and vote for the Catholic (now Christian Democratic) party. But now, people are much more emancipated and shop around. For the trade unions, this means that their numbers are dwindling (political parties experience the same problem). People, especially young ones, don’t feel comfortable anymore in these old and rigid structures. Most worryingly, people think that unions and parties can’t deliver anymore, and more and more they look towards extreme nationalist parties such as the infamous Vlaams Blok / Vlaams Belang.
To me, it looks as if the trade unions finally have found a subject that worries enough people to make them come in huge numbers to their rallies and manifestations. And it seems to work for now, since a lot of companies and public services don’t work today and there are more than 80.000 people manifesting in Brussels at the moment. That the goals of the general strike aren’t clear doesn’t really matter, does it? And that there was some miscommunication is a remark only high-brow commentators will make, but who listens to them?
The strike has blocked many thousands of people from going to work today. But I wonder how many are working happily at home today, like me, connected with their companies mainframes through the internet. No 19th century road block will block the 21st century internet economy. It’s a sign of the times, and the trade unions are not adapting. And to me, that’s a shame, because I think social action is very important in a real democracy. But that means that the social actors must not use the very tools that threaten democracy, such as disinformation, just because it’s in their proper interest.