What happens to two-party labour relations when one party goes mad? That is the question that should be posed about the current state of management and labour union relations in Belgium, as strikes litter the landscape, driven by a set of beliefs based on extremism, contempt and fear. Belgium has had a well-developed labour movement since the First World War. In an attempt to organise the entire Belgian working class, labour organisations influenced political parties, created health care funds and cooperatives.
More than half the Belgian workforce is unionised. Trade unions are divided along political ideology: The two largest, the CSC/ACV and the FGTB/ABVV are linked to the christian and socialist movements, respectively. The smaller CGSLB/ACLVB is linked to more free market policies.
Despite relatively peaceful relations over the years, all hell has broken loose in the last several months, with strikes by railroad workers, prison guards, public service workers among others. Why has the labour movement lost its sense of perspective and service to the public? According to union spokespersons–and there are plenty of those–there are several forces at play. One is the government’s austerity budget. A second is the globalised economy, with companies decamping to lower-wage countries. Another reason is the EU permitting social and labour dumping.
It is perhaps natural that unions find a reason for everything and an organisation to blame for each recrimination. There is, however, one particular area in which unions can be held accountable. That is their total failure at playing a leading role in promoting progressive ideas to expand the economy and, in turn, create opportunities for work. Where once they might have held the higher moral ground in defending worker’s rights and defending their disgruntled members, they are now more conservative than the most right wing party.
They now have the entitlements and cushy benefits they wanted, and they are not going to give some of them up easily. So screw the rest of society. This is great news for the lucky few but terrible news for young people ready to enter the labour market. They feel the pain of the tax burden on employers who, because of it, are reluctant to hire new job seekers. Of course, labour unions are not exclusively responsible for the punishing tax regime in Belgium; cynical politicians also share a large part of the blame. However, that is another story, worthy of another piece of criticism.
Yet the trouble for the government is that the labour unions have so deftly turned their strike campaign into a referendum on the Michel government itself. This insistence on the government getting involved in all labour matters and negotiations must stop. Let the parties with the most at stake talk and work out their differences. Let the government intervene only when necessary: The less political interference the better. This is especially true given the close alliances between some political parties and representatives of the labour movement. In another context it would be called a conflict of interests. In Belgium, they are called social partners.
To move forward, labour unions will have to create a sense that they are ready to move in a direction, given the right conditions, to show that they are not stuck in a static position.
In dealing with reciprocity between parties on important social, political and economic issues, the great Jewish scholar, Hillel, gave the best advice possible for labour unions, when he wrote: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I”?
By Arthur Rubinstein