Closed because of general confusion. Belgium slowed down on Wednesday after the successful strike call on wages, launched by the country's three major unions. The movement has touched the administrations and public services but has also taken in the private sector, in Flanders as in Wallonia. In metallurgy and textiles, trade unions even evoke " never seen ". Chemistry was also very affected. Transportation was severely disrupted, with one out of every two trains stationary despite a minimal service facility. First in Belgium, the airspace was even closed all day to commercial flights.

The last general strike in Belgium went back to 2014. Echoing the "yellow vests" in France (who take the opportunity to try to revive the flat country), its success reflects the unease of many workers in a country hit by the crisis and the deindustrialisation this last decade, but in the process of recovery. Growth was limited to 1.4% in 2018, but the unemployment rate fell back below 6%, a historic low point.

Framed rises

The unions (FGTB, CSC and CGSLB) are demanding an increase in wages and pensions in the context of the inter-professional negotiations which have just begun. They denounce a reform of the Michel government, which frames the discussions by setting a maximum increase to avoid, in the name of competitiveness, a skid compared to the French and Dutch neighbors. It was set in January at 0.8% for 2019 then 2020. The unions were hoping for double. "We want to tell employers:" We're fed up with keeping all the money "and the policies they have to hear from the workers", explained to RTBF Robert Vertenueil, leader of the FGTB.

The employer remains firm

Prime Minister Charles Michel deplored a "Strike that solves nothing" and called on the social partners to resume discussions as early as this Thursday. He said that with the automatic indexation of wages to inflation in force in Belgium, "This gives us an effective salary increase of 4.6%". He defended his action by recalling the creation of 219,000 jobs in the last four years. Pieter Timmermans, leader of the Belgian Employers (FEB), also highlighted the efforts made on employment and considered that "The unions went on strike without having negotiated".

Political uncertainty

These tensions come in a context of political uncertainty, the government coalition no longer having a parliamentary majority since the departure in December of the N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party. Unions threaten new actions by the federal election in late May.

Derek Perrotte

Brussels Office

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